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Pssst … I wannabe white

By Lillian Holt - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000

Aristotle: ‘There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.’

I’d like to preface my paper by stating that I am speaking about my experience only, my life only, my interpretation only. I speak only for myself. I definitely am not speaking on behalf of others, especially other Aboriginal people. I state this up front, for just as whites who question their whiteness are often considered traitors to their race, I have found the same reaction when I have said to certain Aboriginal people who misunderstand my point and my pain: ‘I’d really like to be white, for a change’. Such a statement has been seen as a betrayal and a violation of Aboriginality when in fact it is a cry from the heart which has been ravaged by racism.

Thus should anybody, black or white, be offended by my remarks, I take no responsibility for your interpretation, only for my intention, which is to share rather than to offend.


Psssst … I Wannabe White

Whiteness has moulded, wounded, and informed me. How, when, why, where I don’t really know (I’d be an expert if I did) for, essentially, it is something you detect, not define.

But right from the start, I knew that not to be white was … well … not quite right.

Don’t ask me how I knew it. I just knew it. I knew from an early age, long before the geneticists, the racists, the theorists and the apologists came along, that white was … somehow … was about being … right … being bright … and having might on your side.

I knew from my primary school days when kids like Richard C*** used to call out ‘Gooday, Blackgin’. He said it with such a grin. Ouch, it wounded and scalded as I tried to get him back. I knew that anything other than white was not quite right at about eight years old when a white kid gave me a lolly one day and I obligingly said ‘ta’. That kid laughed at me and said: ‘Tar’s black, so take it back’!

In my early teens, I began to suspect that white was not only right but racist when I was booking my seat at the local picture show and Tubs B*** one of my white classmates, piped up and said: ‘Don’t worry about booking a seat, Lillian, because no one would want to sit next to an ugly blackgin like you’.… I had just turned fourteen.


I was devastated and humiliated. In a moment of realisation which has never left me, I knew that boonginess was anathema to whiteness.

I was to be awakened to whiteness through many remarks like that. Hence, I intuitively came to know that I was part of the ‘otherness’ which whiteness in this country both overtly and covertly defined or ignored.

My teens were traumatic as I searched for signals that said I was OK. But lo, there were no magazines that had women or girls with my features and colour. Whiteness was applauded and accorded Goddess status and statement through endless pages of women with white skin, blue eyes (usually), thin European noses, and mostly blond hair. Not that they were all like that. Deviation was all right if your skin was white. Thus, brown eyes and hair was more than acceptable in the lightness of whiteness. Whiteness, I realised, was like a flashing sentinel signalling all those who could pass through. It aided and abetted, especially those polished, varnished white women, with porcelain skin and features, all taking pride of place in the beauty and popularity stakes.

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This paper was first presented as a speech to the Unmasking Whiteness conference at The Queensland Studies Centre, Griffith University, 17-18 September, 1998. The book of papers from the conference, Unmasking Whiteness: Race Relations and Reconciliation is available for $23 (please indicating your type of credit card; card number; expiry date; name on card; and billing address) from Dr Belinda McKay at Griffith University.

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About the Author

Lillian Holt is director of the Centre for Indigenous Education at the University of Melbourne.

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