Identity: more than the colour of your skin

Shellee Murphy-Oates, Coordinator Corporate Citizenship
Shellee Murphy-Oates, Coordinator Corporate Citizenship

I am often asked about my Aboriginal heritage.

“But you don’t look Aboriginal,” they say. “So how come you identify as Aboriginal?”

The truth is my Aboriginal heritage isn’t something I’ve just decided to identify with in recent years – it’s something that’s always been a part of my life and my identity. When I get asked these questions, this is what I tell people.

My father is Aboriginal. His mother was Aboriginal and his father was a white man. My Grandmother’s family lived on the Aboriginal reserve outside of a small country town in western New South Wales. My Grandmother was one of the first black women to live in town instead of on the fringes of society. She passed away when my Dad was very young, and he was sent to be raised by his white grandparents on the East Coast.

Dad’s Aboriginal Aunties and Uncles tried to visit my Dad and his brother, one time driving for nine hours to see them on Christmas Day.

When they arrived, they were turned away and were never allowed to see their nephews.

Dad’s Aboriginal heritage was never discussed, was frowned upon and buried like a dirty secret. His non-Aboriginal Grandparents believed they were doing the right thing, giving the boys opportunities for education and a life free of discrimination. While Dad and his brother made the most of these opportunities they always felt they were missing out on something. They felt incomplete. It wasn’t until Dad was well into his 20s that he started to discover the other side of his family and his identity, and it wasn’t until last September that we were all able to meet each other for the first time.

We all discovered that we belong to a clan, a huge Mob of over 300 people and dozens of families from all over Australia.

My parents have given me and my sisters the opportunity my Dad never had growing up, to get to know both sides of our family and culture. We celebrate holidays such as Easter and Christmas, but we also participate in NAIDOC week, Reconciliation Week and other community events and gatherings.

I am a descendant of the Nayiampa Weilwan people of Central Western New South Wales and I’m proud of where I come from.

There are thousands of people all over Australia with similar stories. For generations, Aboriginal men, women and children have been separated from their families. Many people only now have the opportunity or feel safe enough to discover and celebrate their true identity. Some will never get that chance. This isn’t something that happened hundreds of years ago, this is something that’s happening today.

Many young Aboriginal people are struggling to deal with what is now recognised as intergenerational trauma. It’s no wonder there’s an identity crisis with many Aboriginal youth of today. We’re damned if we do – and incomplete if we don’t.

So the next time you meet someone who identifies as Aboriginal but who doesn’t fit your idea of what an Aboriginal person should look like, don’t tell them they don’t look Aboriginal – trust me, we know! Ask them what their story is and I guarantee you’ll learn something.

This week is National Reconciliation Week. To learn more or find an event near you, check out the NRW events website.

14 thoughts on “Identity: more than the colour of your skin

  1. Great article Shellee, I also watched a documentary about the Lost Generation sometime back. One should be proud of their heritage.

  2. Sorry Shellee. I’m David Smith one of 4 boys and 2 girls of Ken and Barbara Smith. Dad is the eldest son of My Nan, Sarah Smith/wright.
    Most people thought dad was the eldest and would say it to him, but he was always quick to remind them that he wasn’t, and would let them know that your grandmother was. and he would say, I’m not the oldest my sister Ollie is.
    He loved and missed your nan very much. I would ask him about her and he would light up like a Christmas tree as he talked about her. It was so Special to me just listening to him and seeing the loving look on his face as he told me about his big Sister. I Will never forget the look on his face as he did so.
    I just wished Dad and his other brothers and sisters whom have passed could have lived to see that Family Reunion last year. I’m so glad i did, and I would love us to have another one to get to know you all better.

    1. Hello David. It was wonderful to see you all last year though I don’t think I got to meet everyone properly. I’ve got to get my hands on a copy of the group photo! It would be great if we could make the reunion and annual or bi-annual event so we can get to know each other better and to stay in touch. Thank you for your comment and for sharing some of your own story.

  3. I am happy for you that you found your mob, my story is similar but different. My grand father and one of his brothers were born to an affair between an Aboriginal man and my great grand mother. This was kept as a family secret until 7yrs ago when my father was on his death bed. We had always thought their was a story there but because of the shame of being bastard children and also having mixed blood our story was kept quiet for over a century, my grand father did tell my father or dad had found out through rumours as he grew up in the same area where my great grand parents had settled. We do have a family name and know of one elder who is still with us who might remember our story.
    Because of the time and lack of connection with the community I may never meet my mob and it will leave me incomplete if I cant. I could never understand the feeling I got when I was in the area before I knew our story, I know what that means now and have decided to move up their in a few months to try and find more of our story but also because that’s where I do feel at home.

    1. Hello Robert. Thank you for sharing some of your story with us, I’m deeply touched. I’ve heard a number of stories like this lately, some of whom who don’t know their family name and are trying to find out. We’re very lucky that our family has been pretty well documented – one of the family actually wrote a booklet detailing the last few generations back to the early 1800’s and shared with everyone at the reunion. I’ve heard Linkup are good at connecting families, though we were contacted via Facebook – the power of social media! Good luck in your search and I hope you find what you’re looking for.

  4. Great article Shellee, I was one of the mob that met you last September and how great was it to meet family we didn’t know till that day. My mum Was Rita nee Smith and my nan was Sarah Smith/ Wright.My mum told me all about your dad and how we are related and it’s just so interesting when you hear all the stories about our family and who we are related to.

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