Indigenous identity is not the colour of your skin

Tahlia Burgoyne, Consultant, Advisory
Tahlia Burgoyne, Consultant, Advisory

I was born with blonde hair, blue eyes and skin the colour of ivory; features that are irrelevant to my underlying identity as an Aboriginal person but somehow define me to the people I meet every day.

I don’t look Aboriginal, well not in a stereotypical way, however I am a descendant of the Dunghutti people from Kempsey in NSW.  I identify as an Aboriginal person and am known as an Aboriginal person within the Dunghutti community in Kempsey, the Wiradjuri community of Bathurst where my mother was born, the Brisbane area where I attended University and the Canberra area where I now live and work.

My brother and sister are proud Wiradjuri people from their father’s side. My mum ran the Aboriginal Homework Centre at Bathurst High School and she made sure my brother and sister knew and recognised their Aboriginality.

Then, ten years ago, she found out she was also of Aboriginal descent; a family secret, never spoken about that finally came to light. For Mum, it was no real shock. By keeping my brother and sister in touch with their heritage she was already part of the Aboriginal community.

When you ask the majority of Australians to describe an Indigenous person their standard definition involves some reference to colour. Ask Indigenous people to define Aboriginality and colour isn’t a feature, even features aren’t a feature; it’s about relationships.

Relationships aren’t just about your immediate family but rather where you are known and accepted and most importantly your country, the land where you come from. I have never lived in Kempsey, but I still refer to it as my home. Kempsey is my country and the land I have a relationship with.

Diane Barwick (1974, p. 154) summarised identity as, “To be Aboriginal is to be born to, belong to and to be loyal to a family”. This does not always refer to a nuclear family but rather the broader extended family, around which Aboriginal society pre-European contact was organised via a kinship system.

Rarely will you hear an Indigenous person ask “where do you work and what do your do?” Instead they ask, “where do you come from” or “who is your family?” There is always an emphasis on relationships: family, the land and people you are tied to. These relationships are often defined by people referring to each other (without always being blood related) as brother, sister, cousin or Aunty and Uncle.

For most of my life I have been stuck between two worlds.

Being the only Indigenous person in my school I was constantly challenged about my identity. I would hear comments along the lines of “but you’re so white and have blonde hair, you couldn’t possibly be Aboriginal”.

I was also told, “you can’t be successful and be Indigenous and because you don’t look Indigenous. I would advise you not to tell people”.

I was 17 and trying to decide what was to be my next chapter in life; this was a defining moment for me.

Luckily, I come from a strong line of Indigenous women. This was the driving factor to start a fire within me to educate people that my family, and the communities I am a part of, do not see my blonde hair, my blue eyes or my skin colour. They see me as a woman who is proud of her heritage, a woman making a name for herself and being a role model in my communities.

South West Rocks, Dunghutti country
Hickeys Creek taken from the family farm


Tahlia is now living in Canberra for her graduate year at KPMG. She is a consultant in People and Change. She provides a range of support to her teams through data collection and analysis, producing reports, contributing to the evaluation process and program management procedures.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Indigenous identity is not the colour of your skin

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story! Identity is so much more than ‘skin deep’ as you say. Everyone should read this.

  2. Amazing article Tahlia, this definitely resonates with me! Identity is about relationships, and I’ve never lived in Warren but we’re still Wailwan. Thanks so much for sharing your story, it was a very powerful and engaging read.

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