On being “black” in Australia and the U.S.
Here in Sydney as well as in Egypt, people have often commented to me on the strangeness of the American logic of race. “Why do you call Barack Obama black? His mother was white. Why don’t you call him white?” I explain the cultural logic of the “one-drop rule” of attributing race in the United States, but often people just shake their head at the absurdity of it. I tell them that yes, it’s absurd, but it’s how our culture popularly imagines race. Everyone knows that Obama’s mother was white, and yet everyone “knows” that Obama is black.
I’ve read enough of the work of my colleagues who do work in Brazil, and I’ve lived in Venezuela (where the racial imaginary is closer to that of Brazil than to that of the U.S.), to have some familiarity with different cultural logics of “race.” When it comes to Australia, though, I arrived here pretty ignorant. So for the past year and a half, I’ve been watching and listening carefully, trying to work out how the Australians imagine race. In certain ways the Australian logic seems to parallel the American formula. But in other ways the logic is quite different. Here, being Aboriginal seems to be not about the mixing of genetic or biological material but rather about heritage, about identifying with a community of people who claim you as one of their own. I’ve met several Aboriginal scholars who are as fair as Welsh-background me with straight blond hair, so it’s definitely not one’s appearance that is considered to make one Aboriginal.
Yet perhaps that’s also true in the U.S. It is self identification that matters most in “racial” categorizing, and this is reflected in the U.S. Census, where a person is categorized as black or white or Hispanic etc based purely on how they describe themselves. In contrast, Indigenousness in the U.S. can be is more straightforwardly about imagining the mixing of blood; to be officially Native American for purposes of obtaining some college scholarships or special admissions considerations, for example, you have to show that you are at least 1/16 or 1/32 Native American by descent (see this interesting online discussion); in contrast, the right to hold a Tribal I.D. card from most Native American tribes has to do with how you were raised and what community recognizes you, not with fractions and bloodlines.
But I started out talking about how Australians imagine Indigenous identity, i.e. Torres Strait Islanders or Aboriginal Australians, not about what Australians think it means to be black. I still don’t know that much about how Australians imagine blackness. (Maybe that’s because Australia is more about imagining whiteness than blackness?) This recent SMH article describes a group of Aboriginal artists as “black,” though the skin color of the artist they use to illustrate the article is quite fair. Yet to my American eye, this article is so wonderful — and strange — because of the way it describes a fair-skinned musician as black without at all indicating that there’s any strangeness about that. It makes it look like Australians are a lot less hung up on racial appearances than Americans are.
Can any of my Australian colleagues tell me more about how these labels get applied in Australia? Is “black” applied to all Indigenous Australians, independent of skin color? Is it equally applied to Sudanese immigrants?