'But you're too pretty to be Aboriginal...'

Rachel Visser, Miss NAIDOC Perth 2012

Rachel Visser, Miss NAIDOC Perth 2012 Photo: via Miss NAIDOC Perth

When I was at University for the first time, I remember some bloke telling me on a pub crawl, "You're the best-looking Aboriginal woman I've ever met". I'm not too sure, even to this day, whether he thought this unfortunate line might lead to some groping in a booth later on, but I did know I would never forget it.

Clearly, he thought Aboriginal women were generally unattractive, which is ridiculous and offensive. And additionally, as he so clearly asserted, my alleged attractiveness could only be judged in contrast to that, rather than on its own merits.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. In year 8, I was told by some wonderful classmates that I had been voted the ugliest girl in the year. This, in its own twisted way, gave me some sobering context to the absurd “compliment” this bloke was attempting to make.

Even back then I never paid much heed to looks, so I was also caught off-guard by his comment (hence I didn't formulate a good rebuttal for about a week). Yet by that simple remark, he had objectified me and subjected me to racism, and still today I wonder what the hell he was thinking. Needless to say, if he did receive some pub booth love later on that day, it was not from me.

The thing is, I am not the only Aboriginal woman who has been told this. There was once a Facebook group called, "But you're too pretty to be Aboriginal..." (now defunct), which was full of anecdotes from women who had similar encounters.

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As women, our looks are ripe for commentary from strangers from the day we're born. Throw in the "Aboriginal factor", and this becomes significantly heightened. With sad regularity we are judged not only on our general appearance, but also on our "fairness", our "exoticness" or our attractiveness in comparison with other Aboriginal women. There also seems to be a degree of shame attached to what "looking Aboriginal" meant by some of these comments. I know that I have been told that I look Mediterranean/Maori/Native American/Spanish/etc like so many other Aboriginal women, and the inference often seems to be "anything other than Aboriginal" is good.

Despite years of defecting them, I have not become desensitised to comments about my appearance, and I am sure others can relate. I’m therefore not particularly surprised that some people may want to celebrate Indigenous women's youth and beauty as a way of building self-esteem, and eradicating these stupid stereotypes.

Which leads me to the annual Miss NAIDOC awards. Miss NAIDOC is a competition for young women during the annual NAIDOC Week celebrations that has existed in many forms (from a pageant to a simple written application and interview) for a number of years. I’ve long questioned the motives and relevance of such an initiative. In the past, my issue was as simple as the fact that they were using the archaic title "Miss" for the young women’s competition, when the equivalent competition for young men was entitled “Mr NAIDOC”. But lately, Miss NAIDOC has grown as a competition and morphed into a full-blown beauty pageant (in a way that the men’s competition has not).

In this article referring to the event in the NSW North Coast, it notes that, "the girls will be judged on their walk, the way they present themselves and their responses on their application form as to why they should be Miss/Little Miss NAIDOC". Over in Perth, where the competition was resurrected last year after a 15 year gap, it states, "the process for all finalists involves a six week training course on everything from the art of the perfect poise to public speaking". Both these competitions are open to girls between 18-30 years old, and indeed this seems to be the case across the country. Additionally, whilst the competitions have an undeniable focus on community, particularly shown here with Rockhampton region entrants requiring endorsement from Indigenous community organisations, this community focus is linked with competitions such as "Miss Photogenic" and there is special attention drawn to how "absolutely stunning" these girls looked like on the night of the NAIDOC Ball. A fashion show, or at least a great big dolling up session for the NAIDOC Ball, seems to be a big part of the program.

So much of this doesn’t feel right to me, particularly if we are trying to raise the self-esteem of our young women. Firstly, why are we attempting to do it on such "colonial" terms? Why are we reiterating the importance of poise, deportment, and the ability to be photogenic? Are these borrowed values (which have also been challenged for years by the feminist movement) really the values that our community’s young women should aspire to?

I understand the need to celebrate our youth, particularly considering that they represent the majority of our community, but I also question why we should reinforce the notion that attractiveness has an expiry date by setting an upper age limit of 30. Particularly when we are a community that celebrates its elders and consists of so many proud, strong and beautiful women beyond that age bracket? Aren't there other ways that we could celebrate our dynamic young women that don't revolve around how they walk and look in a frock? 

Pageants for our young women can’t be a good thing. Not when we are aware of how our women are already objectified. We should be giving our young people the tools to fight the effects of homogenised notions of “womanhood” and “beauty”, particularly considering that they are already combating societal notions of “Aboriginality” when it comes to their appearance.

I am proud that there are determined young black women who are standing up to represent their community. I am proud that they are already engaged in their communities and that they aspire to make change. I understand that they may enter this competition with open eyes and may walk away from the experience completely empowered. I just wish that there were better ways in which these amazing young women could be celebrated in the context of our national week. Perhaps a young Indigenous women's forum during NAIDOC where they can discuss the issues affecting them as a group and walk away empowered by leadership workshops and sisterhood bonds? I don't pretend to have the answer here, but I don't really think that the answer lies in "Miss NAIDOC".


This post originally appeared at Black Feminist Ranter. Republished with permission. 

 

 

31 comments

  • I'm not Indigenous so I won't presume to have an opinion on how NAIDOC events such as this are or should be run (i.e. "conlonial" terms). In response to the comment of "too pretty to be Aboriginal", perhaps enter the winners/competitors into non-Aboriginal competitions. Present them as equally beautiful as any other pageant princess in Australia. I realise these are cultural events, but maybe if you do this, the idea of the "ugly Aboriginal" (not my opinion) might gradually be proven wrong.
    Maybe beauty pageants could be used as a force for good instead of evil :)

    Commenter
    AG
    Date and time
    July 06, 2012, 9:15AM
    • I've got that comment so many times and it's always said as a compliment. It doesn't bother me though. People are saying it with good intent. And I have to say, there are times when I am embarrassed to say I'm Aboriginal.
      Let's be honest, we don’t have the greatest reputation with the public. I haven't met too many people that have nice views and words to say about our race.
      I don’t care though. I am Aboriginal and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I have lovely skin, a great tan and I think our history is pretty amazing.

      Commenter
      Bec
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      July 06, 2012, 9:33AM
      • Bec reading this made me both sad and angry. Sad to see you feeling ashamed of who you are and angry that all these people who supported the national Sorry Day and who are so vocal about Reconciliation will still be too stupid to realise it has to filter down through everyday life *sighs*

        My nephew has had the same "compliment" from girls his age (21) "you're so hot, are you REALLY half Aboriginal?" and it makes me seethe in anger. I'm sorry you have to encounter this blatant ignorance in your day to day life.

        I'm glad you don't give the haters a chance and are proud to be who you are. You are a star.

        Commenter
        Chanteuse
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 06, 2012, 1:01PM
    • I've got that comment so many times and it's always said as a compliment. It doesn't bother me though. People are saying it with good intent. And I have to say, there are times when I am embarrassed to say I'm Aboriginal.
      Let's be honest, we don’t have the greatest reputation with the public. I haven't met too many people that have nice views and words to say about our race.
      I don’t care though. I am Aboriginal and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I have lovely skin, a great tan and I think our history is pretty amazing.

      Commenter
      Bec
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      July 06, 2012, 9:34AM
      • I love your passion for your culture in this article however women of every race and religion have been fighting this kind of shallow misogynistic culture for years.

        Commenter
        Shelley
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 06, 2012, 10:13AM
        • I love the comments so far, intelligent and well thought.

          Commenter
          Pinoy
          Date and time
          July 06, 2012, 11:19AM
          • Celeste, it's funny you should write about this very topic. I relate to you, although as a Eurasian woman and I am often told that I'm something that I'm not. When I say I have a Chinese grandmother, people especially those from more homogenous gene pools tend to get quite taken aback as like you, I often get labelled anything from Italian to South American. Australia has a pecking order that puts people of colour on the bottom rung especially ethnic looking women. You are right Shelley about the misogynistic culture. The European version of beauty still remains the stronghold here , not surprisingly. I guess that's why white Australian actors and actresses do well in Hollywood etc but you don't see the likes of Debbie Mailman etc there. I've seen many beautiful aborigine people because I have a different script when it comes to beauty. And if there is any consolation Celeste, I too was voted the ugliest girl in yr 9 by the mostly white north shore private school girls at the school I attended. Whilst they are still in their north shore bubble, I have an international career in law. You go girl, hold your head up, be proud of who you are and hold your own. Nothing quite unsaddles a person when you know your rights and have the intelligence and wit to disarm the ignorant.

            Commenter
            Yep
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            July 06, 2012, 12:28PM
            • spot on AG, you are obviously a very observant, intelligent person who can admit to the truth.

              Commenter
              sue
              Location
              sydney
              Date and time
              July 06, 2012, 12:50PM
              • This reminds me of some "art" at the MCA. Three photos show a Murri woman displaying her naked breasts. It is meant to be a critique of the racist/sexist photographers of 100+ years ago who didn't take photos of naked Murri woman. Maybe they were prudes rather than racists? Or maybe they didn't want Murri women to be seen (at the time) as sex objects? Either way, I found it (unintentionally) hilarious.

                Commenter
                steve
                Date and time
                July 06, 2012, 1:10PM
                • As a dark-haired dark-eyed schoolgirl with less than celtic looks I was occasionally called a "wog". Horrified then, I came to be very pleased about this so-called insult, although not pleased about the term used to insult me. I lived in Alice Springs for a few years and saw many beautiful Aboriginal women and men. And I would say to Bec, I think the Aboriginal people have been treated appallingly by the white community and that they have endured to this extent is admirable. I treasure the memory of the many Aboriginal people I met in Alice Springs who were kind and caring once they gained trust in me.

                  Commenter
                  Cherie
                  Date and time
                  July 06, 2012, 1:25PM

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