Elliana Lawford has always struggled with her Aboriginal identity. (Supplied: Elliana Lawford)
Ever since she was a kid, people considered journalist Elliana Lawford white because of her pale skin. During a live storytelling event, she spoke of her struggle to accept her identity as a proud Wiradjuri and Anaiwan woman from NSW, and how she found unlikely help from Tan-in-a-Can.
I remember walking around with the sister girls at school and someone said, “What’s that white girl always doing hanging out with all the black kids?” And I was like, “White girl? Where?”
I remember the first time that it actually really resonated with me. And it was when someone said to me, “Oh, you’re Aboriginal, but you’re white. How much of you is Aboriginal?” And I was pretty confused, so I went to one of the aunties who looked after all us mob there. And I said, “How much of me is Aboriginal?” And she said, “You tell ’em it’s just your legs and shit can you run fast.”
We kind of laughed it off… but this was something I continued to get asked.
And every time I was asked these questions, I became more and more disgusted with the colour of my skin.
And that disgust, I guess, hit its peak when I was in about year 10 in high school and I received an Aboriginal scholarship. I was over the moon. But then it hit me, I had this thought: “How can I get up on stage as a black woman when I’m white?” And that’s when I discovered Tan-in-a-Can.
The many applications of Tan-in-a-Can
The night before I had to go down to accept this award, I lathered myself up so thickly in fake tan I looked like one of those bodybuilders. I remember walking out in the morning and my dad, looking at me, shocked, like, oh, my gosh, what’s happened?
And he just kind of laughed and said, “Well, bub, you look the part.”
I was the blackest woman to ever walk on that stage.
But from then on in I actually became obsessed with fake tan, so much so that I actually wouldn’t leave the house without it — I wouldn’t go out with friends; I wouldn’t go to parties; I wouldn’t even go on dates unless I’d fake tanned.
The boys all thought I was playing hard to get. But really, I was just too white. And the obsession grew from there. I wanted it to be more permanent.
So I started researching online ways that I could make my skin darker.
I came across these tablets in America called Melano-Tan, and they were quite expensive, especially given I was working at Donut King at the time on around a $6 an hour wage.
But I ordered these pills from America and I started taking them and they made me so sick, to the point that I would have to hide from my family and friends and sneak off to throw up. But the fake tan and the pills made me confident in telling people about my culture and my bloodlines and my Aboriginality.
Moving to Darwin
Then last year, I moved to Darwin to take a job offer as a news reporter with the ABC. And the first thing I noticed when I moved was the amount of Aboriginal culture.
Some of the blackfellas up here speak English as a second language, if at all. Especially in the remote communities, hunting and fishing is still such an integral part of getting tucker for the day. I felt like I was taken straight back to where I’d started and I felt so white.
I remember one of the days at work I was sitting with one of the Aboriginal interpreters. The ABC broadcasts news in a number of different Aboriginal languages and I was in the studio recording one of these broadcasts with one of the interpreters, Maggie, and she was there speaking our language, picking up her phone, chatting to her friends.
And I said to her, “I’m a little bit embarrassed to tell you this, but I’m actually Aboriginal, too. But I don’t know my language and I don’t know my dances. And I have white skin.”
She looked at me and she said, “We feel so sorry for you East Coast mob, because you lost so much.”
And for the first time in my life, I realised that it wasn’t my fault. And I didn’t have to carry around all this shame about not speaking my language every day and having such white skin.
And, as if she could hear all of the thoughts that were going on in my head, she put her black hand on top of my white hand, and she said “Yeah sister.”
I stood up out of that chair, and I left 23 years worth of shame in it. And I walked out of that room as a proud white Aboriginal woman.
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