Saturday, October 01, 2011

Eatock v Bolt :The stories of the nine plaintiffs – Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the stories of five of the nine plaintiffs in the Eatock v Bolt case revealed in Justice Bromberg’s s 149-page judgement. Today, it’s the turn of the other four.

Larissa Behrendt
Behrendt is a NSW law professor and author who lives in New South Wales. Her father and paternal grandmother were Aboriginal. Her paternal grandmother lived in an Aboriginal camp before she was taken away from her family by the Aborigines Protection Board. Her paternal grandfather was English and her mother and maternal grandmother were Australian. Bolt made a schoolboy error when he said Behrendt looked “almost as German as her father” based only on the sound of the surname. Her father was a prominent, well-respected member of the Aboriginal community was an expert on oral histories. He was always part of her family and her mother was always strongly supportive of her Aboriginal identity. Behrendt was 11 when her father reconnected with his Aboriginal family and told her about his languages, dreamtime stories and Aboriginal traditions. Behrendt said she “identified as Aboriginal since before I can remember”.

She began to experience racism at school where she was teased for being “black”. She was motivated to become a lawyer because her grandmother was forcibly removed from her family. She became a Doctor in law at Harvard Law School and was not the beneficiary of any special admission program for Aboriginal people. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous writing. Bolt called her “professional Aborigine” who is “chairman of our biggest taxpayer-funded Aboriginal television service”, a reference to the National Indigenous Television Service established in about 2006 for which she received $20,000 a year. Behrendt said she took the position because Aboriginal people needed to have their own voice in contemporary Australia. She said Bolt’s reference to her as “mein liebchen” was particularly offensive, patronising and denigrating. Her take-out message from the articles was they sent a message to young people that if you are light-skinned and identify as Aboriginal you will be publically attacked and criticised. She regards that message as very intimidating.

Leanne Enoch
Leanne Enoch is the Red Cross Queensland director for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships. Her father is Aboriginal and her mother is Australian. Her and her siblings’ cultural upbringing was dominated by her father’s side of the family and she has always identified as Aboriginal. She grew up on North Stradbroke Island where her mother (whom she resembles) was always accepted as part of the extended family and her mother fully supported her Aboriginal identity and her education in Aboriginal culture. As the eldest grandchild of the eldest son (her father), she was groomed for cultural responsibilities from a young age Enoch has always been recognised as being an Aboriginal person and first faced challenges about her identity at school after her family left Stradbroke. Many thought she was adopted and she witnessed racism from people who didn’t realise she was Aboriginal and likely to be deeply offended. Enoch trained and then worked as a teacher for 10 years where she assisted with Aboriginal cultural awareness programs.

She then worked Aboriginal social policy and stood for election in the ALP. While first dismissive of Bolt’s article, she became more alarmed when she realised that everyone in her family and community would see it. Her father and many of her relatives saw it and were upset and she too was distressed by the effect on her children, particularly her oldest son who is fair, unlike her younger son who is darker, and who is going through identity issues of his own. Enoch said it was highly offensive Bolt said she was “not really Aboriginal” because of skin and hair colour. Because Bolt suggested she chose to identify as Aboriginal to further her political career he was saying her hard work, skill and talent were of no significance.

Mark McMillan
Mark McMillan is a lawyer and an Arizona Appeals Court judge for American Indians. He has an English father and a mother of Aboriginal descent. He was raised by his mother until he was eight and then moved to his maternal grandmother in Trangie, near Gilgandra, NSW. In Trangie McMillan and his siblings all knew they were Aboriginal. They were told stories about their Aboriginal relatives, including about their maternal great grandmother who was the last Aboriginal local language speaker.

His family were all involved in the Trangie Aboriginal Land Council and two years ago McMillan was elected to the Board of the Council. Like the other eight plaintiffs, he experienced racism and was called an “Albino Boong”. In 1996 he worked at ATSIC as a clerk. Three years later he was awarded an Aboriginal undergraduate award and studied law at the Australian National University.
He was selected to participate in further study through an exchange program in Canada. He was admitted to the bar in 2001 and found a research position with Larissa Behrendt at Sydney UTS.

In 2003, he was accepted to the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program. McMillan found Bolt’s suggestion he was “not Aboriginal enough” offensive and said he inferred he only identified with his Aboriginal heritage for political gain. He was also infuriated by Bolt’s insinuation he was a “a gay white man with a law degree” and “just the kind of Aboriginal who needs a special handout” which was offensive and humiliating. McMillan was humiliated when subsequently forced to assure his American employers he was indeed Aboriginal.

Pat Eatock
Pat Eatock was born in Brisbane in 1937 and is now retired in NSW. Her mother is Scottish and her father had Aboriginal parents. Her father was ashamed of his background and it was never discussed at home. They were also afraid the authorities would take away the children if they ever found out about their black heritage. Eatock identified as Aboriginal since she was a teenager and she told the court much of her Aboriginal identity was formed by negative experiences.

At Primary School in Ingham, the playground at the school was divided by a fence. “White kids” played on one side of the fence and “black kids” on the other. Eatock and her sisters were put to play with the “white kids”. When the school teachers saw the father the childen were taken out of the “white” children’s playground and put in the “black” one. Some parents then complained about “white” children on the wrong side of the fence. They were then put back in the “white” playground and this was Pat Eatock first identity crisis.

She left school aged 14 and began to identify herself as Aboriginal so she would not be accused of hiding her background. She worked in factories until marrying in 1957. She cared for her children until 1973 when she went to university where she encountered a different kind of racism. People would make racist remarks about Aboriginal people in her presence which she found stressful. She would tell people at the outset she was Aboriginal or wear clothing associated with Aboriginal issues. Encounters with Faith Bandler inspired to get involved with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 and 1973. She has stood for election in the Australian Capital Territory as an independent Aboriginal candidate.

Eatock graduated with an arts degree in 1978 and worked for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. She became a lecturer in Aboriginal Community Development in late 1991 and got a disability support pension in 1996. She still volunteers for Aboriginal issues and lives modestly in a one bedroom Department of Housing flat in Sydney.

Eatock told the court was horrified, disgusted, angry and sick in the stomach when she saw Mr Bolt’s Articles. She said Bolt disconnected her from her Aboriginality and denied her life’s work and ethics. She has been more disadvantaged than advantaged by identifying as Aboriginal and has had only six to six-and-a-half years of employment since 1977. She said Bolt’s articles were racist and she remains deeply offended.

These stories of Eatock and the others show racism was casual and endemic in Australian society. They, more than most, suffered for their background by not neatly fitting the stereotype of being black skinned. Judge Bromberg quoted the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2003 Report on the Protection of Human Genetic Information which said ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are social, cultural and political constructs, rather than matters of scientific ‘fact’.

Bromberg noted the ‘blood quantum’ classification for determining Aboriginality common in Australian law until recent times. “It is a notorious and regrettable fact of Australian history that the flawed biological characterisations of many Aboriginal people was the basis for mistreatment, including for policies of assimilation involving the removal of many Aboriginal children from their families until the 1970s,” Bromberg said. “It will be of no surprise that a race of people subjected to oppression by reason of oppressive racial categorisation will be sensitive to being racially categorised by others.”

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