By Adelita - A proud Gunai Kurnai woman
"I wondered whether black/blak women, both lighter and darker, would have more success at clubs if white women stopped trying to look black?"
Working multiple shifts were always disorienting. There was no day and night. Just work and sleep. There’s a world made of shadows and neon, coinciding with the conventional one you know. It’s not the face of Melbourne; it’s the guts. It’s both gritty and glitzy, uncomfortable and agreeable, the underbelly that feeds the city and keeps it satisfied. Sometimes I likened the streets and the buildings to an old steam train, and the club was the churning furnace that kept it running. It was just one venue though; just one strip club amidst many, slotted in between the concrete paved trees and lamp posts. It had been daunting at first; a place built of stages, mirrors and lingerie. A place where acrobats twirl and tumble in the tallest of shoes. It didn’t take me long to see it was not that far removed from the sugar-babying and cam-girling I’d done over the years. The marketing was the same. The idea that this was ‘easy work’ conflicted with the very nature, essence, and functionality of the job. So there I was, fourth night in a row - clammy through my Urban Decay setting spray, foundation on my pole bruises, my sweat now a mixture of Britney Spears perfume and baby wipes, with feet numb and packed into 8-inch heels. It was 6 am and the club had quietened down, so I took myself to the upper level and sat with the empty tables, bourbon and coke in hand, watching another dancer’s pole set over the dark red railing. After a while, the ceiling catches my gaze, with disco ball reflections dotted across it like stars in the night. I know this world has no day and night, just work and sleep yet I can’t help but think of constellations and stars past the ceiling. Mentally, I clock off and my thoughts travel to a place far from where I am. I remember the sting of wet eucalyptus smoke in my nose, hot cocoa and damper in my hands with Uncle Pat beside me. He points to the sky and tells me about the emu up there. Dreaming about the stars and the space between them, thick smoke from a machine wafts up and through the railing and brings me back to my shift at the club. I felt both alone and surrounded, in a world so different from what my ancestors had known, in a world built for white men.
Whether you identify openly or privately as Aboriginal in the workplace, it comes with a mix of pride and pain. There will always be a racist comment, a ‘misunderstanding’, an ignorant person. You learn from an early age to tolerate it; the same applies to sex work. At least, for the most part, you can choose your customers, and for me, that meant that a racist wasn’t worth the money.
“Is that blackface?” my housemate asks with a furrowed brow. We lived together and worked together, and no question was ever taboo or off-topic. I used the many mirrors of the changerooms to subtly look at the women she was referring to. From what I could tell, these women were white, but their fake tans were darker than I could ever naturally sun tan. “Look, it’s borderline,” I answer with a dry laugh “Any darker and I’d be concerned.” But I was concerned. Upon signing the contract for the club, one of the written requirements is to always have a tan. Before I signed, the manager looked at my skin colour and scratched out that line with a pen “You’ll be fine in that department” she had muttered. The fact it’s in the contract means there’s a demand for it; it means the customers who are coming in are preferencing looks that are “mixed” or racially ambiguous. That being said, there were still a handful of white girls allowed to have their natural skin colour - smooth and even porcelain. Glancing around the crowded changeroom, I see more examples of the extreme tanning, and take note of the fat transferrals, BBLs, heavy lip fillers, fox eye lifts, hair curling, large hoops, name-plate necklaces…I overhear “OMG babe, you look so black!” from a dancer complimenting another. Every culture and subculture borrow from one another; witnessed here in those physical alterations and styles, as well as African dances such as twerking. I blend matte foundation in round strokes with a brush and listen to the giggles and gossip in the changerooms. I’d grown to know and love nearly all these women I was working with, and I came to believe that the majority of them were not ‘culture vultures’. Ultimately some were unintentionally stealing and profiting. There is a fine line separating those that steal and those that borrow - and it is based on their involvement in black communities. I watch long legs in the highest of heels making tight turns around the corners of the dressing room and am in awe of the beauty that surrounds me. These women were gorgeous and independent, with strong business minds and they knew how to best market themselves, so my quarrel is not with my fellow dancers and sex workers. Whilst I wish more dancers would be mindful with their words, and lend their support to the BIPOC communities more - perhaps with donations or even acknowledging the roots of their looks more... I know they're catering to the clients for the most part. And I know also that they appreciate those styles and love those looks so much they want to emulate them. Hell, it seems like everyone wants to look black these days. Unless it means actually having to be black. However, while looking “black” with extreme tanning and fillers might be a ‘hot look’ for you, it is still one you can choose to take off. It doesn’t come with the baggage. Society has shown us time and time again that blackness is only acceptable when it’s whitewashed. As I tap setting powder on my face, neck and chest, I ponder a few more things. By my count, there were roughly 5 black women I knew that worked here out of about 100 dancers, yet there were 50 white women that were imitating black looks and styles. I wondered whether black/blak women, both lighter and darker, would have more success at clubs if white women stopped trying to look black? Would the men seeking women with mixed/racially ambiguous looks pick WOC? Or would they be forced to realise that they only value those features when they’re on a white woman? An inquisitive dancer approaches me and pulls me out of my thoughts. “Is that natural?” she asks, pointing to my skin. I nod. “What's your nationality?” A question I dread on account of its complex answer. “My dad is Aboriginal, Spanish and white, and my mum is English and German.” She looks surprised and kindly replies, “Oh, that’s why your skin is so nice. The colour. It's golden. That’ll be the German and Spanish.” She smiles and walks off, unaware that I’m offended. To be fair, why should she expect me to be offended? It’s a compliment, right? Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive from years of being told that I’m too pretty or too light to be Aboriginal. Too sensitive from years of hearing that my beauty isn’t related to my Aboriginality, but that it exists despite the Aboriginality. Too sensitive from the years, nay, the generations of being trained to reject it… of being trained to dilute it so it’s acceptable. That’s when it hits me; A mixed woman is valued for the lightness in her skin, whereas a white woman is valued for the darkness. I spray my hair with perfume and then spray my heels too. Sliding them on is both painful and comfortable as I’m sore from working too much but it’s beginning to become normal to me. I watch the overly tanned women as I stand up slowly; asking myself at what point do you call this blackface? Does it have to be ridiculing bla(c)k women to qualify? Or is monetary benefitting off their looks and features enough? What about the women that don’t know, support, or uplift black communities but benefit from the styles? How do you know the difference? I sigh in exasperation, knowing I’ll never have the answers, and wishing I had another Aboriginal woman to work with, someone who I could bounce these ideas off. So far I hadn’t met another First Nations woman who worked at this club and truth be told when comments about Aboriginality were made, I had never felt so alone in my life. I walked out of the change room door and down the steel stairs to begin my shift.
The club was bustling. Men standing shoulder to shoulder, moving around, like the tightly placed cogs that kept us working hard. I locked eyes with a white man amongst the chaos. Craning my neck, I walked swiftly over stained and sticky carpets and approached him with a smile. “Where are you from?” he demanded. I told him I was from the city. He repeated the question. I couldn’t be bothered to explain my full heritage and simply retorted “I’m Aboriginal.” He was pleased and said “good, that's great, my mates have been looking for exotic girls.” I found my face screwing up a little at that comment as he babbled on about how he and his friends preferred ‘exotic’ looks. At this point, I knew I couldn’t get through a booking with him. I felt that profiting off his ignorance would personally cost me far too much throughout the night. I interrupted: “I’m literally native.” and walked off. However, it didn’t feel like a victory or even a small win. I needed the money and my impulsiveness had ruled my decision making. I’d learned that moments that highlighted the racism that was ingrained in most White Australian's thought processes, were moments I wanted to avoid. My job was to dance. To entertain. To laugh. To punish. To tease. To even be a therapist at times. An educator though? And one that as an Indigenous woman was seldom taken seriously? I didn’t allow that in my job title. Here, time is money, effort is based on efficiency, and emotions are left at the door. Yet I felt that emotional tax was the unpaid area of my job whenever a racist comment was made. I asked myself if I could demand tips/bookings and monetise the effort of educating them, and the truth is for me, personally, no amount of money is adequate after a draining conversation as such.
Those moments aren’t unique to white people sadly. In fact, it was the comments from men of colour I found most heartbreaking. Racism and colourism have been sewn into the very fabrics that wrap up this country, and if you don’t stop to wonder if you might have internalised racism as a bla(c)k person, you probably have some unconsciously sitting there. I can distinctly remember during a private show for a black man, ‘Gasolina’ by Daddy Yankee was blasting and I wasn’t the only one dancing. He was seated half a metre away from me and was pumping his shoulders and singing the females’ lyrics. He had me cracking up whilst my spine moved like a cobra up against a pole. The song finished and he paid me to just sit on a couch with him and chat. I found him hilarious until he started rambling “I only like lighter skin females. But they can’t be white. Have to be mixed, a bit of that spice y'know but I don’t like dark-skinned girls. I just don't think it looks good.” Trying to diffuse comments like that without losing a customer previously had me compromising my morals for a quick buck but later reflecting on those moments and feeling immense shame and betrayal towards my darker-skinned sisters. I decided to draw a line and told him off. We argued for a little as he rolled his eyes and eventually when our time was up, we went our separate ways. Again, it didn’t feel like a victory, it wasn’t even a small win. Having morals in that industry is nearly impossible because you’re going to bend them one way or another. Morals don’t protect you - but boundaries will. And I learned that I had to maintain those boundaries and walk away if I couldn’t change someone’s mind because it wasn’t just a heated or opinionated conversation to me. It cost me and sometimes would have me lying awake in the early hours of the morning after a shift.
These experiences are just a peek into a night at work, they aren’t the worst of what I’ve had, and comparatively speaking this club was quite inclusive. I don't recall meeting any other First Nations dancers at this club though, and definitely no dark-skinned ones. Being light-skinned is the strangest mix of privilege and alienation. You are treated far better than a dark-skinned First Nations person would be, but still subjected to the racist comments because so many people see you as being “white enough” to not have an issue with what they’re saying. “But you’re not like those Aboriginals” I have heard too many times to count. Specifically which Aboriginals? Why am I not? Because my Great Grandmother was stolen? How do you know how connected I am to Country, Community, and my ancestors? Why does my skin tone define me? My relatives were taught it defined them, and it forced them to reject who they were. When people say “those Aboriginals” with that disdain in their voice my blood boils as I think of the struggles any First Nations person has to go through to try and survive. It’s as though White Australia is pitted against us and any success we might seek.
They say we're too light. They say we're too dark. They say we're broke and poor, then they say we get too much ‘free money’. They say we’re too dumb and quiet. Then when we’re educated, we are told we’re too loud. All light-skinned Indigenous girls have been told that they are ‘too pretty’ to be Aboriginal. The fact it keeps happening makes me believe strongly that it is our Aboriginal Heritage that gives us our beauty, our smiles, our empathy. They took everything they could from us. Time and time again, we have shown they cannot take our Identity. They took my Great Grandmother’s and now her story has become intertwined with mine as I reclaim what was stolen. Thus it becomes a story of survival against all odds. No matter what we do and where we go, what job we work, what people we associate with, what countries we travel to… One thing remains the same and triumphs time and time again: We are First Nations People. When you identify that and own it, it is an act of rebellion in a country built to assimilate and swallow us whole. We are First Nations People, and we are proud.