'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.