An open letter to Anita Heiss

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

All I really want to say is “thank you”. And there is plenty I want to thank you for.

I want to thank you for not cancelling your April 18 evening conversation with Martin Flanagan at the Melbourne Wheeler Centre to discuss your new book Am I black enough for you?

It was a very powerful and moving event to be part of; a reaffirming lesson of the importance of courage, humility and respect.

As we all found out, it was no easy decision for you to go ahead with the event.

I also want to thank you for having the courage to front the public, especially after you have been consistently bombarded with hate mail and racist comments for the simple fact that you stood up for your and your fellow Aboriginal brothers and sisters’ right to freedom of “identity”. Your bravery inspires others to confront prejudice and injustice.

The very recent release of your book inflamed some hysterical troglodyte responses on the internet, encouraged by Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt’s inflammatory blog post “Are we censored enough for you?”, decrying what he called his loss of freedom of speech. The article has been removed from the site for legal reasons. I wonder why?!

You told us the book, your family story and memoir, had been in the pipeline for a couple of years but its completion took on more urgency in 2009, after Bolt’s racist attacks on you and several other light-skinned Aboriginal people, questioning the motives of your “Aboriginal identity”. The book’s title, “Am I black enough for you?”, is a cheeky reference to Bolt’s assault on your existence.

“I was always the dark one,” you said about copping racism early on in your life. But all of that changed in 2009, when suddenly you became the “light one”, once again having your identity defined by others.

Bolt was not happy that you self-identify as an “urban beachside blackfella”, who has a “part-Aboriginal” (according to Bolt) mum and an Austrian dad, is educated, wears high heels and is not too keen on camping. This kind of uppity behaviour needed to be nipped in the bud.

I want to thank you for being part of the gutsy class action successfully launched against Bolt in the Federal Court under the Racial Vilification Act. This challenge and the consequent judgement last year helped set the precedent that powerful mainstream media commentators and their seemingly inalienable right to spread a deeply offensive, highly divisive and poisonous ideology, are not untouchable.

You mentioned that the class action was not a decision you took lightly or a decision you made just to right the wrongs done to you as a person. You took this step at the urging of “countless members of the Aboriginal community to fight the good fight” and challenge journalists’ never-ending perpetuation of Aboriginal stereotypes.

I want to thank you for being so generous and still determined to share your life with us through your book, even though the process of writing your story had been “tarnished” by Bolt’s actions and a mob of racist bigots.

You also told us that this “ugliness has been overshadowed by the generosity” from a broad range of people from the Aboriginal community, Black American writers and non-Aboriginal Australians.

You explained to us that much of your inspiration for your book came from Alice Pung and Boori (Monty Pryor), two wonderful writers, who in their very own way creatively and positively challenge stereotypes of identity and nationality. Your aim was to make the book a statement of pride in Aboriginal identity with its own forms of representation and terms that are not solely defined through “race”.

I also want to thank you for writing the book in an accessible way and keeping in mind the next generation and their educational needs by making the book available as a “resource for schools”. This gives us all the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of Aboriginal identity and indeed our very own. This is something this country needs more than ever.

And last but not least, I want to thank you for keeping your sense of humour and cracking a few great jokes under these challenging circumstances: you are a legend.

Your standing ovation was well deserved.


Comments

Couldn't agree more with everything you wrote. We all owe Anita a debt of gratitude for helping us understand ourselves and our history and for highlighting (at considerable personal cost) the racism still rampant in Australia. She is an inspiration to everyone who hears her speak or reads her work.