A colourful and foreign identity

I have not had a relationship with any Aboriginal people. A few work-related contacts were glancing, with no depth. I have read and been told that non-urban Aboriginal people refer to themselves as ‘blackfellas’; and that all others are ‘whitefellas.’ But, how could I accept that description when I sport a superior colour? (Heh, heh!) Then I believe that the term ‘yellowfella’ was applied to non-indigenous coloured people. Since the colonial British had referred to East Asians as belonging to the ‘yellow race’, I am not inclined (although I have part-Chinese relatives) to accept my colour as in any way yellowish.

I then decided that, since I had been described as a black in my early years in Australia, I would describe myself as a blackfellow; note the ‘ow’. That did not go well with my friends and colleagues; you are not black, they insisted. That is, my identity seems to be determined by others – and is thereby variable.

This was borne out during a social function during my mid-40s. Soon after my arrival in the national capital and found myself a lowly clerk, I met a few Asian diplomats. I had actually been offered a job as a trainee diplomat in the government of newly-independent Malaysia. Through one of these friendships, my wife and I attended a few diplomatic parties. We must have presented ourselves with some style, and displayed some maturity, for certain favourable assessments to have been made about our identity.

However, at such a party, people would walk away when I denied that I was a diplomat; or a non-resident on a training program. More people would move away when I said I was an Australian government clerk. Those who stayed to talk were interested in our background, as an Asian/Anglo couple were rare. I therefore used that description of being a government clerk for years to sort those who would talk to us only if I was someone with status. “What do you do, and what is your status?” was the normal conversational opening in our government city, in not only social gatherings of government employees, but also in gatherings of, say, academics.

However, an inquisitive fellow at a party given by a friend of mine, an Australian diplomat (actually, diplomats remained public servants when at home), rejected my mask. He said, “If you are a government employee, you must be a Director. No one below that rank would be here.” This chap, our host and I were all directors.

Personal identity seems to be determined by the observer, no matter how one sees oneself.