Amy McQuire on growing up looking white but feeling black – and how a visit to her other homeland, Vanuatu, changed everything


It has become one of those family anecdotes: the time a stranger thought my dad had stolen me. Dad was walking around a shopping centre in Liverpool, where I was born and lived for a few months in infancy, when a perplexed man came up to him and asked, “Is that your baby?” He was worried I had been kidnapped.

I don’t know if that would happen today, given how diverse western Sydney is, but back then it must have been a shock to some to see a black man with a white baby.

My mother is non-Indigenous and, in terms of genetics, my South Sea Islander and Darumbal father never got much of a look-in. I came out with paper-white skin, black hair and blue eyes, which eventually turned green.

A few months later, Dad got a job in Rockhampton in central Queensland, where the majority of his family lived. My mother had grown up in a small town called Morven, about an hour’s drive from Charleville, and much of her family was now spread out across the state, so I grew up predominantly around my extended South Sea-Murri family.

I always had a complex when I was younger, and it was complicated by the fact that my dad’s siblings were light-skinned. I was socially awkward, the type of child who would take books to parties and soccer games and hide under tables while my sister made new friends. Sometimes I think a part of this awkwardness came from a feeling of being an outsider and even a fraud: feeling black but looking white.


I remember lying under our big poinciana tree and trying to come up with theories about why I was so pale and freckled. I can’t remember many of them now but one does stand out: that I was white and my dad was black because I had been born in Australia.

My developing brain was undergoing the colonising process, teaching me to consider the country I was living in a white one. This is settler colonialism at its most insidious, targeting our children and feeding them ideas of white supremacy.

In fact, Dad wasn’t born in Vanuatu and nor were his parents. On both sides he had great-grandparents who were kidnapped from their homelands of Vanuatuand the Solomon Islands and taken to Australia and, on his mother’s side, a grandmother who was a member of the stolen generations and who was forced into a form of slavery on her own land near Shoalwater Bay, now a US military training base.

I didn’t know of this heritage growing up, even though we had lived near the base of the mountains in the area known as Nerimbera (nerim meaning mountains andbera meaning people) and walked daily through massacre sites where our Darumbal ancestors lost their lives.

I only began thinking about the concept of country when I visited Vanuatu.

I have been going to the island of Tanna since I was nine and my sister was six, when my family made the journey after we reconnected with our cousins. I always remember my first trip.

There was a big ceremony to welcome us. I clearly recall sitting on a mat with my family near a banyan tree, watching dancers. The chief got up and gave my sister and me our custom names. A hundred years after my Pop Youse was stolen off a volcanic beach and sent to the pastoral properties and sugarcane fields of Queensland, we had returned.

It was a few years later that I began to realise the importance of country – how land is not a thing to be bought and sold. We were at another village on Tanna, at a place named after the killing of a white missionary, and I looked around and kept thinking: “This is what land rights is.”

Land holds stories and, within those, it contains the people both of the past and of the present. You can’t sell it to the highest bidder. READ MORE