Chally at Feministe expresses outrage
over a story from Australia about Tarran Betterridge, a light-skinned student of Wiradjuri and Caucasian parentage who was passed over for a job with a campaign to promote Aboriginal employment because she didn’t “look indigenous” enough. The grounds for finding this offensive are clear enough: How dare any “casual bystander” (as Chally puts it) presume to tell someone else their racial identity merely by glancing at a photograph?
But I wonder if this intuitive view doesn’t hinge on a mistaken essentialism about race. We know, after all, that conventional racial categories are social constructs rather than simple biological facts—and that, for instance, whether an Italian American is considered “white” is a culturally contingent question that’s been answered in different ways at different times. What that means, though, is that the question of whether someone “is” black, white, Aboriginal, Hispanic, or whatever, can’t be answered by reference to any simple natural fact about (say) ancestry or biology. It will depend on the social purpose for which you’re asking, and the context in which you’re asking. For many purposes, “being” black or Latino just is a matter of being socially perceived as belonging to the relevant group—and who someone’s grandparents were or what genotype is hiding behind that phenotype are just irrelevant, except insofar as they determine perception. Those perceptions, of course, may differ from group to group, or context to context—and the individual’s own sense of identity may be something else again.
So return to the specifics of the case. Apparently the job in question involved manning a booth, and the motive for preferring personnel of indigenous heritage was the belief that the program’s targets would be more likely to approach a booth if they perceived it, at a distance, as being staffed by at least one other indigenous person. If you grant that as a legitimate rationale for a hiring preference, then whether Betterridge “really is” indigenous isn’t relevant. What matters is whether she’d be perceived that way from across the room by another indigenous person, a question that has nothing to do with whether she is “any less a person of the Wiradjuri nation.” Because, of course, being “a person of the Wiradjuri nation” is itself nothing more than being recognized as such by other people. Nobody outside that community, of course, can tell Betterridge whether she “really is” Wiradjuri, but for the limited purpose of this hiring decision, it’s not clear that it matters either way.