'How black is he?'

Writer Celeste Liddle, as a baby, with her father and mother.

Writer Celeste Liddle, as a baby, with her father and mother.

My mother is an original 100% Melbourne girl. On both sides of her family she can trace back roughly four generations that have lived in the area, and is an inner-north-born, working class, Collingwood supporter with the quirky Melbourne attitude to match.

Mum comes from a long line of brewery workers, boot clickers, tradies, cricket players and home-makers. So when my mother met my Arrernte-boy-from-Alice-Springs father and decided to get married and have four children, she not only upset the apple cart somewhat, she also came to know racism in a way she hadn’t known it existed before and, at times, it must have been heartbreaking.

My mother married my father in the 1970s just years after the Referendum recognised Aboriginal people as humans. She was told my father would “only get darker as he gets older” and was frequently asked, “how black is he?”. Despite all this my parents are still happily together today, 37 years later.

Celeste Liddle and her mother.

Celeste Liddle and her mother.

My mother is always over the moon when someone points out that one of her children looks like her. Due to our darker hues inherited from our father, most people just attribute us to our Dad regardless of what other features we may have. It’s usually indicative of people just not thinking, but at times it has a sinister edge.

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When mum took my sister to Kindergarten for the first time she was asked if my sister was adopted. Several years later when the same sister was being a bratty teenager on a train, a fellow commuter whose ire had been raised turned to my mother and said, “that's not your daughter, is it?”

For me it started from the moment I (being the eldest) entered the school system. I shoved another little girl because she had called me “black bum” and got accused of having a bad temper.

Dad had a “water off a duck's back” approach to racist taunts. He would encourage us to have strength and rise above it. Mum, on the other hand, was there when we came home from school in tears after another incident, or when we were flat out refusing to go because we were sick of being bullied because we were different.

She was the one who reassured us and got actively involved in changing people’s perceptions. She encouraged us to talk to our teachers (who were not always skilled in dealing with racial vilification) and was the one who came down to the school in the aftermath to mediate.

Teachers often implied that her kids were asking for it by standing out. For her to explain to them, as a white woman, that her non-white children were suffering and needed assistance was a tough gig, but she did it over and over again. When Dad was available to go in to the schools to talk, the teachers would go eerily silent as if intimidated by his very presence.

My younger brother relied heavily on mum during the years he experienced racism at school as the expectation was always at an all boys school that if someone bullied you or was racist, you hit them. Being the only Aboriginal kid in the school meant not only was he singled out for his difference but he was outnumbered if things became physical.

When things were really bad for my brother my mum encouraged him to meet with the principal and talk with him about his experiences. The school eventually ended up flying the Aboriginal flag on its grounds in order to make steps towards becoming a more inclusive environment and my brother was nominated as a representative on the Social Justice Committee as a result.

Recently, it hit home to me just how much my mother had battled against the ignorance of others over the years. Her and I were watching a show on Aboriginal Identity Politics together and after the show she was visibly upset. When we spoke she said to me that for years she had seen her children vilified because we were too black to fit in in our predominately white schools. Now she was seeing other Aboriginal people say that we weren’t black enough.

It hurt her that there were those who never saw her children as good enough no matter what we were. I realised that this must have been what she had experienced for years: having to defend her maternity, having to stand up for us and having to reassure us over and over again. It dawned on me that this was why mum bought me books on feminism, joined school fete organising committees and brought in Aboriginal dancers, and encouraged me to have an opinion from a very young age; she was trying to instil strength in the face of adversity.

I'll always be thankful for my parents, who, for all their wonderful craziness tried to ensure that I, and my siblings, had strength and support available to survive what was sometimes an incredibly hostile environment. And I will always be particularly thankful for my mother who, whilst not having to face issues of racial vilification herself when she was growing up, continually supported her children for whom it was a daily reality.

41 comments

  • A wonderful article Celeste! As the white mother of an African-Australian primary school child, I was deeply moved by the battles your mother fought so that you and your siblings would be accepted and enjoy the same rights as other students. Your mother was certainly a trail blazer and has made it easier for women like me raising mixed race children in later generations.

    I am happy to say that my son does not face the same hurdles as you faced growing up in the 70's. His school has students from many different cultures and races and he does not stand out or feel that he is different.

    Of course we are sometimes recipients of the occasional ignorant comment - there are the adoption remarks and people who suggest that he should be darker as a result of his genetic makeup. Blacks see him as White and Whites see him as Black. I worry if he will be targeted by police and security guards when he gets older. The battle is not over yet, but thanks to people like your mother, we have come a long way.

    Commenter
    Lucy
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 01, 2013, 9:04AM
    • Lucy, it is so sad there are those people who will never admit that we all belong to the same Race with different Ethnicities. This is the Truth.

      Commenter
      Acushla
      Date and time
      July 02, 2013, 4:39AM
  • Dear Celeste, Thank you for sharing the heart warming story of your life. Your mother is an inspiration. She displayed great deal of strength, courage, grace, love, and commitment through extremely challenging times. The 37 years of married life shared by your parents is exemplary given what your family had to endure. Hopefully someday racism will be a thing for the history books. Cheers, Chris

    Commenter
    Chris Ricky
    Date and time
    July 01, 2013, 9:33AM
    • +1

      Commenter
      Susan_66
      Location
      Corangamite
      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 10:49PM
  • Good to see this issued addressed as racism is a very big part of many families of 2 diametrically different cultures. A good friend of mine has seen his children subjected to the same treatment since he met, married and lives with a Fijian woman in Suva. Her family have never accepted him, and their beautiful children have been subjected to endless racism by many at their school for not "being Fijian enough". Whatever that is!
    It is a tragic, terrible experience for anyone to endure and it is helpful to start showing this more often

    Commenter
    david
    Date and time
    July 01, 2013, 9:46AM
    • I have a friend who is part indigenous australian but to all outward appearances he looks caucasian. He has blonde hair and blue eyes.

      When people find out he is indigenous, he cops racism both from white people for being black and then also on the flip side some indigenous people call him a white fella.

      It must be a real challenge to face this "not fitting in" every day without being able to be true to oneself and embrace both sides of his heritage.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 01, 2013, 9:52AM
      • As a coloured immigrant who has lived in Australia for over forty years, I write to say that I have NEVER experienced discrimination at the hands of a white Australian.

        And if I had, my attitude would be to simply say that the problem is theirs, not mine. Having married a white Australian, whatever racism my kids experienced at school they too, have shrugged off with pretty much a similar attitude.

        The simple reality is that in any multicultural society one is faced with forms of prejudice. There is religious prejudice, gender prejudice and racial prejudice where various ethnic groups turn on one another. This occurs to a far greater extent than any black versus white issue. It is long overdue to be honest about this, rather than beating the white oppressor drum.....

        Commenter
        Bigotry is not exclusive to Whites
        Date and time
        July 01, 2013, 10:13AM
        • So because you haven't experienced much racism you're dismissing others' experience? It's fantastic that you are able to brush it off for yourself, but that doesn't mean other peoples' experiences are illegitimate or unconcerning.

          Commenter
          pb
          Location
          sydney
          Date and time
          July 01, 2013, 10:49AM
        • This year Waleed Aly wrote about the 'high level of low level racism' in Australia. Jeremy Fernandes of the ABC was racially abused on public transport in front of his young daughter (one of several similar incidents recently). And then there was Eddie McGuire...

          Surveys regularly show that most Australians regard racism as a problem. The ANU did a study exposing widespread discrimination in hiring practices.

          I am a brown person living in Australia too. I think that this is a better country than most. But I'm not in denial about a serious problem in our society that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

          Commenter
          Nano
          Location
          Deghetto
          Date and time
          July 01, 2013, 11:49AM
        • I think the issue is that a certain amount of "low level" racism seems to be accepted as a "social norm" within Australia.

          I.e. its OK to be racist if you're making a joke (its just a joke) or if someone cuts you off in traffic (I was angry) which permeates through society.

          Australian's do have a tendency to think that others should "develop a thicker skin" rather than they adjust their behavior so as to not offend in the first place.

          It's an interesting debate as I think there is room for good humour but where does one draw the line between making a joke and being offensive?

          Commenter
          Adrian
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          July 01, 2013, 12:32PM

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