Skin Colour Pearls

I know it’s irrational to want to hug people because of their colouring, but I have a soft spot for red-headed Aborigines. One of the beauties of where I live is that it attracts Indigenous people from around the country. The local resort has an affirmative-action-style recruitment policy for young Indigenous people. I enjoy meeting them — even if they don’t always enjoy meeting me (they are usually sick or distressed when they see me).

My Dad is a redhead from an English background. His genes have given us some gorgeous redheaded Goori children in the family. When I lived in New South Wales I thought that maybe the red-headed Aboriginal people lived primarily in the south east. After all, it is where most Aboriginal people live, and it was where the invasion and dispossession started about 230 years ago.

Maternal Kiss by  Mary Cassatt  1897. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Maternal Kiss by Mary Cassatt 1897. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Then I went on to meet these brilliantly coloured people in the Top End, the West and even here in Central Australia. Those Viking genes are strong, I thought. But now I know that Melanesian and Polynesian people have red hair too. For all I know the redheads have been here for 80,000 years along with everybody else.

Australia’s Indigenous population is probably about 4%. About 2% of humans are redheads. So, to be both is extraordinary, precious and rare. I must be hanging in a very exclusive crowd, I reckon. Most educated Australians know that Australian Aboriginal families develop lighter skins — our melatonin is an adaptation to tens of thousands of years in this environment and slips away quickly in a few generations of intermarriage with people who have fairer or just different complexions. We don’t have recessive genes for our skin colour, so there is no ‘throwback’ for it among us (unlike red hair, which pops up every second or third generation). An Aboriginal baby is never browner than the darker-skinned parent.

Indigenous people in Australia come in all colours of the rainbow in their complexions. Despite that understanding within families (including other multicoloured Australian immigrant families), prejudice against dark-skinned people is still very strong. This article by a gorgeous, bright young woman (which I read in an Aboriginal Facebook group post) spoke eloquently of the experience of microaggression — people pulling their bag closer as you pass, the shop assistant who says, “You have to pay for that, you know,” when you’re browsing. I recognised her experience from years walking the streets of Sydney as a young woman. Young women can have a hard time in this country. If you’re pretty and dress conventionally you can be left alone, depending on the context. If you’re different in any way you get nasty looks. Sometimes even healthy curiosity can feel nasty after awhile. This is especially true in cities, where people have to encounter and make quick judgements about hundreds of strangers a day.

My son told me he experienced something like this when he was a teenager. Coming home from travelling around the city, his playground, he noticed that people withdrew from him. Because of his growing size and tender age there was a general assumption that he might be violent. He didn’t understand. I felt sad about it.

My great-grandmother wanted her grandchildren to lose their dark skin colour. Her name was Maude Royand she was a Thunghutti matriarch. Mother of fourteen children, she insisted that her children marry white people. I have seen a photo of Maude as a teenager. She looked dark and stormy in her maid’s outfit. She was one of the hundreds of young women stolen into domestic drudgery in the early years of the last century – taken away from home and country made to work whether she wanted to or not, paid very little if at all. Her frizzy hair and anger make her seem taller than she was. Her story was one of very many. You can find out more about what happened to these women.

Maude’s insistence on wanting her grandchildren to be fairer-skinned was so strong that one of her grandchildren, the product of an Aboriginal love match, was kept hidden from her. Imagine that, having to hide your child’s existence from your mother! The intensity of Maude’s feelings speak to the trauma of that age. You can read about the killing times in Thunghutti (and our larger clan Dainghadi) country in this book.

There is a painful history in the way we look now. It wasn't all rape and massacres though. There were always people who wanted to enter into Aboriginal families and cultures and married into the clans gratefully. There were always British (and Chinese and Macassan and Afghan and Irish and all the other) individuals who loved and respected their Indigenous partners. Great grandmother Maude would be proud of us now with our alabaster complexions and Aboriginal cultures.

Light coloured skin and eyes. Thunghutti woman who needs a hat. (c) Claudia Jocher 2016

Light coloured skin and eyes. Thunghutti woman who needs a hat. (c) Claudia Jocher 2016

I met a young man of Gandangara and Wiradjuri ancestry yesterday. Both are large and beautiful (adjoining) countries in present-day New South Wales where I have family. We spoke of those countries fondly. He told me how much pleasure it gave him to visit Central Australia and be around the people here. He grew up strong, if struggling, but encountered many broken people as a youth. He continues to encounter broken and confused people, including many who are compelled to make an assessment of the reality of his ethnicity. It’s a pervasive form of racist abuse in this country. Celeste Liddle explores some of the nuances of it.

My new friend and I talked about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, a birthday gift I received from my son. I talked about how exquisitely and honestly Coates articulates the feelings he had as conflict, fear and violence surrounded him during his childhood and adolescence in Baltimore in the US. Across the chasm of historical differences, I know that Coates’ words will resonate with this young man from Western Sydney.

With his generous and powerful insight, Coates reminds us that there is no such thing as White. The people who get called “White” all come from somewhere. They are Persians or Romanians or Finns or Scots or Afrikaans, with deeper knowledge of ancestry revealing more specific tribal or language group history. Further knowledge says we all came from Africa. Still some of the old Aboriginal people insist that we evolved here on this continent separately.

Given that Aboriginal people had hundreds of language groups ranging across a huge range of environments, from snowy mountains to desert to coral-fringed reefs, I expect that the people were also genetically and ethnically diverse. A person from Arnhem Land is very different from a Tasmanian and till the British came, these differences were even more pronounced. There was as much diversity between Indigenous people here on this continent as there is among people on any of the continents — diversity in way of life, language and appearance. We still have so much to learn about these ancient cultures.

Photograph by  Benji Aird

Photograph by Benji Aird

Cultures do not end because their children have different colours.

So the next time an Australian with fair skin has the grace to reveal their Aboriginality, whether by their clothes or jewelry, their tattoos or their story, let your heart swell with gratitude that the web of Aboriginal cultures continues to be woven. Indigenous knowledge and values are important for the human race. If we are to survive this age and begin to care for the planet, we will need them. Each one of those children is to be treasured as they integrate the continent’s history in their skin and their soul, and navigate their way around a painful and defiant history. Just like those ruby and quartz-coloured relations of mine back in the many countries of the Thungutti diaspora.

Thumbnail image of colourful woman embracing a book by Annie Spratt