The Imposter

By Myles Russell-Cook

It is polite to introduce yourself properly to your audience, your host and, others. In Aboriginal culture introductions and identification are essential—people want to know who they are meeting, where they come from and how they are, or might be related. With this in mind, I introduce myself as someone who identifies within a discourse of cultural hybridity: that is, I openly embrace all my heritages. My identity includes, indeed privileges my Aboriginality.

While this multiplicity of identity is in many ways a strength, it can also be a cause of distress. For many years, I have lived with a type of cultural imposter syndrome. As I have fair skin, and am declarative about my Aboriginality I’ve often felt the need to justify my cultural positionality. I clarify that I’ve grown up within contemporary urban Aboriginal communities and, I have endeavoured to, wherever possible and practical, learn Aboriginal languages and customs. I both self-recognise my Aboriginality and am recognised by many Elders, including those who are the owners and custodians of the land on which I live: the Boonerong and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.

My ancestors were born on Wotjobaluk land. We don’t know much about them other than their names as written in Government records: “Frances [native], and James [native]”. Although official documentation is scant and fragmented, I have been lucky enough to be raised in a wellspring of cultural knowledge passed down to me through my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents. While there have been many attempts in my family’s history to disassociate our name from our Aboriginality, I continue to be educated within my culture because I have some proud, intelligent and generous ancestors. However, I can not deny that in addition to being Aboriginal, I am also, at least in the view of the general and unknowing public—WHITE.

I am ever cognisant that like most contemporary people with Indigenous heritage, I must consciously construct my identity against the historical and traditional perception that Indigenous culture and Aboriginal people remain ancient and untouched, and that to be authentic we must appear a certain way. In a country built on the institutionalised dispossession and removal of Aboriginal people with the sole purpose of “breeding out the colour”, fair-skinned Aboriginal people are extremely common. So why is it that fair-skinned Aboriginal people are still so often confronted with internal struggles around their authenticity?

Since the early frontier wars, there has been an economic advantage for settler Australians to reduce the Aboriginal population because to put it bluntly; fewer blackfellas meant more land for the whitefellas. The late historian Patrick Wolfe called this, settlement based on “the logic of elimination". In Australia, having non-Aboriginal ancestry made someone less of a threat to land acquisition. There can be no doubt that generations of settler Australians also descend from Aboriginal ancestors, unacknowledged and unremembered: half-castes gave way to quadroons to octoroons and then for many they were just 'Australian'. Although Australia has officially rejected the notion of blood quantum and genetic arithmetic, fair-skinned Aboriginal people are frequently asked the intrusive question “what part Aboriginal are you?”. So one’s proportion of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry, or “blood”, remains the defining factor of Indigenous authenticity for the non-indigenous population.

This is a very different logic to that which has, for instance, shaped African-American colonial history, which was rooted in slavery. The system of slavery intended that the population of slaves must increase as this enhanced the colonial system’s economic capital, whereas in Australia any increase in the population of Aboriginal people was seen as economically counterproductive. [1]

So Aboriginal people, including myself, are still sorted into classifications whereby dark-skinned Aboriginal people are accepted as authentic, and fair-skinned Aboriginal people are seen as fraudulent. This only serves to further the rationale of diminishing the Aboriginal presence from mainstream view, and thus decreases the threat to the white man’s wealth. A few members of the Aboriginal community internalise this logic and direct scorn and dismissal towards fair-skinned Aboriginal people, which is a type of destructive lateral violence: that is, the misdirection of violence toward one’s peers rather than one’s true adversaries. I have experienced this personally with community members who don’t know me or my family asking how recently I have identified. These types of questions are damaging and hurtful, and not unlike when Andrew Bolt (in one of his ill-famed articles) specifically named my family having chosen to identify without a genuine claim. I do not identify as Aboriginal, I am Aboriginal. I have as much control over my Aboriginality as I do my skin colour.

Lateral violence from within Community is a symptom of suppression and, for the most part, it is common. This violence compounds the sense of being an imposter and ironically is allied with Bolt and other conservative denialists.  While this may represent the widespread mainstream understanding that authentic Aboriginality as rooted in blood quantum’s and skin colour our lived reality is very different.

After decades of struggling I choose now, consciously and out of respect, to reject this internalised feeling of being an imposter. My identity does not need to be authenticated beyond the community that recognises me, the family that claims me and sense of self that I maintain. In honour of my ancestors, who keep me rooted as a being in and of place, from now on when people ask me why I am white I will answer: Because some Aboriginal people are.


About Myles Russell-Cook

Myles Russell-Cook is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer in Design Anthropology and Indigenous Studies at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. His undergraduate studies were in Commercial Photography at RMIT. Myles has also undertaken postgraduate studies in Fine Art and in Digital Media Design. He is a board member for Banmirra Arts and has conducted archival and museum research in Australia, North America, and Europe. Myles works full time at Melbourne Museum as Assistant Collections Manager for the Australian Indigenous Collection.


[1] This comparison of course does not apply to Native Americans, who would arguably be the most appropriate comparator and who in many ways have been usurped in the discourse surrounding race relations within the United States.