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What It Means To Be "Too Pretty To Be Aboriginal"

A documentary has explored Australia’s perception of beauty through a degrading statement heard too often by Indigenous women.

Proud Gomeroi and Dhungutti woman Miah Wright has been told "you're too pretty to be Aboriginal" more times than she can count.

"Whenever I go out, it’s the most asked question by men so by the end of the night I'm slightly over it," she recalled to 10 daily.

"I remember one even telling me I wasn’t [Aboriginal] -- I had to be adopted or my parents didn’t know what we really were. I hated that."

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The former Koori Radio and Yabun Festival producer said "active racism" in Australia has ensured such an ugly sentiment still exists in 2019.

"First Nations women are amazingly stunning and come in all different looks and styles," she said.

"I always use people's assumptions to educate them about us."

Born to a Jirrbal and Wadjanbarra Yidinji mother and an African-American father, writer and director Sasha Sarago has confronted the concept head-on with her new documentary.

Co-produced by Fringe Dweller Films, Too Pretty To Be Aboriginal features a diverse group of Indigenous women sharing their experiences with the theme.

Sarago told 10 daily she tackled the subject "not only for me to reconcile my personal issues with the phrase, but to help other Aboriginal women too."

Too Pretty To Be Aboriginal's Sasha Sarago, who founded Australia's first website for Indigenous and ethnic women, Ascension Magazine, in 2011. Image: Fringe Dweller Films.

Sarago spoke with Dr Liz Conor, author of Skin Deep: Settler’s Impressions of Aboriginal Women to uncover evidence of the phrase's history.

Its origins can be found deep within colonial white Australia, where sexually derogatory terms like 'gin', 'lubra' and 'black velvet' were used for Aboriginal women in mainstream publications dating back to the late 1800s.

"The repetitious and systematic degradation of Aboriginal women through print culture played a huge part in the [phrase's] formation," Sarago said.

The phrase has become so embedded in Australia's psyche that Indigenous women have begun taking ownership of it, Shannan Dodson told 10 daily.

The National NAIDOC Committee Member used the successful podcast "Pretty For An Aboriginal" by Nakkiah Lui and Miranda Tapsell as an example.

Miranda Tapsell (l) and Nakkiah Lui talked sex, relationships, dating, power and race during the first season of their popular podcast. Image: BuzzFeed Australia.

"Growing up I heard it a number of times -- I don’t ‘look’ like an Aboriginal person, I’m actually ‘pretty’ or I must get my prettiness from my Anglo mother," Dodson, a Yawuru woman, said.

"Indigenous women across the world are criticised or denigrated for our looks and often objectified in the process."

Television host Trevor Noah came under fire on the eve of his Australian comedy tour last year for a joke he made about Aboriginal women in 2013.

During his routine, Noah said he "knew" there were audience members that were thinking they had "never seen a beautiful Aborigine".

He went on to say "it's not always about looks" and "maybe Aborigine women do special things" as he imitated a didgeridoo while miming oral sex.

'A woman of New South Wales' painted by Augustus Earle, published about 1825. Image: National Library of Australia.

Wright was "outraged" with Noah's comments, a gag he's refused to make an apology for but instead offered to stop performing.

"He's a huge comedian with a huge platform. He's also a black man, which made it even worse," she said.

Dodson said Noah's words were "hurtful, demeaning, unnecessary and not funny".

"There is a long history of Aboriginal women being undesirable, ugly, and only good for one thing -- sex -- whether it be consensual or not," she added.

Aboriginal women are arguably among the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups in Australia.

Indigenous women protest the forced closure of Aboriginal communities in Melbourne in 2015. Image: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Anadolu Agency/Getty.

They are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence than non-Indigenous women, according to the 2016 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey.

They also make up 34 percent of women behind bars, despite the Indigenous population of the country being only two percent.

"Growing up, you knew being Aboriginal wasn’t favoured so I tried to downplay and ignore that core aspect of my being to survive," Sarago shared.

"No wonder I had issues around my identity."

Dodson offered Aboriginal women are the "backbones, support and pillars" of their communities.

"I come from a long line of strong women who've faced more adversity in their lives than one could even imagine. We wouldn't be where we are today without the strong warrior women who came before us, and stand beside us."

Yolngu woman Maminydjama Maymuru (C) walks the runway during Miss World Australia 2016's National Final in Melbourne. Image: Scott Barbour/Getty.

One of the documentary's interviewees, Rachael Carter, said she's determined to give her two daughters access to images that affirm their blackness.

"Only five weeks ago, my four-year-old said to me brown skin is ugly and she wants to paint it white, because white people are smart and pretty," the Gunaikurnai woman told 10 daily.

"I think when a child can say that, our society needs to make some changes."

Too Pretty To Be Aboriginal airs on NITV on Tuesday, January 8 at 7pm ET.

Featured image: Jorge de Arujo.

Contact the author: samelia@networkten.com.au.