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If you're white, you're right

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 25 May 2006

When I was an adolescent growing up in rural Queensland, frequently I heard older Aboriginal men taunt each other with a sarcastic saying:

 “If you’re white, you’re right - if you’re brown, stick around - but if you’re black, stay back.”

I don’t know where it came from but when I turned 18 and sought entertainment at the local bowling club for the New Year Celebration Dance, I soon discovered the meaning and power of that adage. On reaching the front of the queue, I held out my hand to pay the entry fee, only to be told aggressively by a finger-pointing, white bouncer that “no blacks are allowed”.


Although devastated by this racist act, I became rather agitated when I glanced in the direction of the clientele inside the venue who were witnessing my predicament. I observed several lighter skinned Aboriginal women with their white boyfriends taking delight in my misfortune while getting their fill of alcohol.

Many Indigenous people around the country might well say that not a lot has changed since my experience in the late 1970s. I am aware today of many Indigenous people, male and female, who prefer the company of their white friends to their own mob, living under delusion they are "hanging with" the in-crowd and are readily accepted by their white peers.

That’s not to say that I’m opposed to the concept of close bonding between Indigenous with non-Indigenous people - after all some of my best friends are white. What I am saying, however, is that I object to Indigenous people (coconuts) who adopt a superior standpoint over their mob because of their association with white people - a “they like me better than you” attitude.

A quick look at history will show that certain members of the Indigenous population in the late 1800s and early 1900s were also afforded special privileges, like eating at the master’s table for dinner, while their “native” slave-labour brothers and sisters ate at a respectable distance from the rarefied confines of the homestead. Many received the symbolic tin plate emblazoned with the royal title “King Billy”. As long as they obeyed and acted on their master’s demands they were OK.

Just to make it even more formal, the colonial powers enacted legislation to restrict the movement of the Indigenous population and to let them know who the rulers were.

The most notable of these draconian policies was the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 passed by the Queensland Government. It was to remain the chief policy instrument for Indigenous people for the next 40 years, until a new Act was passed in 1939. Some amendments were made in 1901 and 1934, however the original intent of the Act remained intact. Similar racist policies were in force in all states and territories throughout the nation during the same period.


Just to give you an idea of how determined the colonisers were of their desire to control the movement of “people of colour” living in this country, they also introduced the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Variations of the policies were operative from the late 1880s until the 1950s, with certain aspects of the policy surviving until the 1970s.

Back in 1901, when their national population was about 3.7 million, white Australians had a legitimate concern that Chinese immigration, (“the Yellow Peril”) would have the adverse effect of “swamping” their recently acquired country. There was also fear that the “Yellow Peril” and the Kanakas (indentured or “blackbirded” Solomon Islanders) were undermining the local workforce by providing cheap labour for employers, especially in the sugar cane industry. Seven thousand Kanakas were later deported because of concerns expressed by the unions.

From Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, I discovered that it was during this time Prime Minister Edmund Barton made his infamous statement, "The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman". The trade unions and their political party, the Labor Party, were the driving forces for White Australia.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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