Blak and white thinking: What is my place in the 2023 referendum?

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Invasion Day 2020, Melbourne || Photos by Johan Mouchet via Pexels

“Questions of identity thus run far deeper than skin colour. And that identity crisis is not born out of a lack of love from Blackfullas. It is a product of proximity to whiteness” – Chelsea Watego, Another Day in the Colony.

I can’t remember it ever being announced that I was Blak, other than knowing my dad told me when I was little; just like I accepted that the sky is blue, I also accepted that I was Koori. What I was made to understand by white people, though, was that I wasn’t like ‘other’ Blak people. I was a fair-skinned and red-haired kid, growing up in a family and community that looked the same.

My first relationships with Aboriginal people was at University when I met friends at the Badanami Centre. Our family didn’t know much of our history beyond my great-grandfather, our family name ‘Ritchie’ even being called into question by a lack of paper trail.

There existed a lot of trauma around our heritage, with my grandfather punished for his father being Blak. Self-loathing, internalised racism and an ill-formed sense of identity persevered throughout the generations of my family.

My school friends felt comfortable being racist, and even after identifying myself, would call me slurs as a ‘joke’, whilst other people would simply say, ‘You aren’t Aboriginal.’ I would awkwardly laugh it off and pretend I was not hurt, attributing it to ignorance and suppressing the doubt I began to feel.

Yet after the government released the Voice proposal, my white friends suddenly became more vocal about First Nations issues. They would post colourful social media graphics with statistics about youth incarceration or Indigenous deaths in custody in pretty, frilly font and a caption with the hashtag #voteyes.

It was unbelievably grating. I felt like I wasn’t Blak enough to contribute to the discussion. Yet, white people could get on a social media soapbox to preach about Blak issues remaining secure in their racial identity.

Even though I had concerns about the Voice proposal, I would tell myself that my future wasn’t directly impacted, so I shouldn’t count in the discussion. Gnawing away at these thoughts was an overwhelming question of why? Why do I feel I don’t have a place in the discussion?

In November 2022, I met Mark Dreyfus KC, the Attorney General of Australia, who came to speak to the University. There, I dared to ask a powerful figure about First Nations issues for the first time. Asking those questions made me realise why I never felt entitled to contribute to conversations about Blak issues in the first place; the ‘white trespasser complex’.

When non-Indigenous people have told me that I am not ‘really Aboriginal’, I felt like a white trespasser in a conversation with First Nations peoples. When you are a trespasser in a community, how could you possibly have a right to speak about changes to that community?

You feel like an alien stranded between two nations, able to understand what language each group is speaking but unable to respond to either group. Blak and white, racialised and privileged, included but simultaneously othered; these binaries encompass the struggles that come with Blak identity and leave you stranded out of the conversation.

However, it was never Blak peoples that excluded me, I have never felt so supported by a community before I met my Blak brothers and sisters in Badanami. It was always white people who enforced this complex.

Having understood this complex, I enrolled in a unit called Law and Public Policy: The Voice to Parliament Referendum. The unit involved students engaging with local communities surrounding the factual background of the Voice. I opted to write an article on W’SUP called ‘Vote with Care; A Guide to the Voice to Parliament; It was an article that empowered me as an Aboriginal woman, as I finally got to spread awareness about issues that affect Blak people without feeling fraudulent.

As new insights are revealed about the Voice to Parliament referendum, I remain confident in my stance. If you were to ask me my view a few months ago, however, I would have told you that I was unsure whether I deserved to have my voice heard. Now I know that no matter the stance taken, we must endeavour to listen to all First Nations peoples’ perspectives.

Questioning your racial identity as a First Nations person can be a lifelong struggle, but it does not make you any less entitled to contribute to Blak conversations; if anything, you add a new perspective. Actively concealing your opinion for fear of not ‘being Blak enough’ goes against the purpose of the referendum.

No definitive standard of ‘blakness’ is required to share your opinion about issues affecting you, your kin, and your community. It is the inclusion of First Nations voices that is essential in this referendum proposal. So don’t fret; understanding your racial identity isn’t always blak or white, and it does not make you a trespasser in community conversations. Blak identity runs much deeper than a referendum.

Ruby Ritchie

Ruby is currently enrolled in a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts and is currently an…

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