“It was nice to talk about the things we talk about when we’re together because we realised that it was a lot of things that other people outside the [Indigenous] community probably don’t know about,” Tapsell says.

The series begins by asking what the centuries-old tradition of debutante balls reveals about race, colonialism and ideas of beauty.

But, as listeners are warned in one of the early episodes, “this isn’t a cosy costume drama about white women in diamond tiaras like Downton Abbey“.

In a quest for answers, Tapsell and Lui trace the journey of the ball from its origins as a “super-exclusive colonial marriage market” to its transformation into an empowerment tool for First Nations communities around the world that have dismantled the practice and made it their own.

In Australia, the first large-scale Aboriginal debutante ball was held at Sydney Town Hall in 1968, a year after a landmark referendum in which Australians voted overwhelmingly in favour of counting Indigenous people in the national census.

It was a rare celebration of Aboriginal women, who had previously been excluded from such occasions.

Flower girl and boy at the 1968 Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs debutante ball at Sydney Town Hall.

Flower girl and boy at the 1968 Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs debutante ball at Sydney Town Hall.Credit:John Elliott

“I felt we did belong there and it was our night to shine. We’d never had that opportunity before,” recalls one woman who made her debut.

The watershed event has spawned similar Indigenous-run balls across the country, including one organised by Lui’s mother, Jennifer Beale, in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt.

Instead of being presented to a monarch, the young women are presented to a local elder. After waltzing the Pride of Erin, debutantes add their own flavour with traditional cultural dances.

Butucarbin Aboriginal Corporation Naidoc Debutantes Ball in 2018.

Butucarbin Aboriginal Corporation Naidoc Debutantes Ball in 2018.Credit:Louise Kennerley

The area is one of the poorest places in Australia, Lui says, with “massive inequalities” in education, health and housing.

A lot of young Aboriginal people don’t finish high school and miss out on senior formals or graduation ceremonies, so the ball is one of the only moments when teenagers – especially young women – can feel beautiful, celebrated and empowered.

Tapsell says her teenage self would have savoured such a moment: “I think 16-year-old Miranda would’ve walked into the adult world with her head a little higher.”

Judy Shepherd getting ready for the Butucarbin Aboriginal Corporation Naidoc Debutantes Ball in 2018.

Judy Shepherd getting ready for the Butucarbin Aboriginal Corporation Naidoc Debutantes Ball in 2018.Credit:Louise Kennerley

The Larrakia woman says she was “endlessly bullied” in high school.

“I felt like all people could ever talk to me about was being Aboriginal or being short – I just felt like lots of limitations were placed on me.”

She turned to acting to break free of those limitations. Her crowning moment came at her year 12 formal when she was awarded most likely to become a movie star: “That was kind of the pinnacle moment for me, where I went: yeah, I can take on the adult world … and no one’s going to stop me.”

As Tapsell and Lui set out to speak to other Indigenous and African-American women across the globe, they find they have much in common.

“Every day I was surprised at the conversations we were having and the places we were going,” Lui says.

She recalls one poignant moment, when she swapped stories with an African-American woman at the site of a former slave market in Atlanta, a few blocks from the church where Martin Luther King used to preach.

“We sat there and held each other’s hands and cried as we realised that our grandmothers were eerily similar,” she says.

The grandmothers of both women had an obsession with cleanliness and keeping up appearances, to the extent they would insist their children always wore matching underwear.

On location in Minnesota, USA: Miranda Tapsell and Nakkiah Lui meet Mary Kunesh Podein (centre) at Minnesota State Capitol.

On location in Minnesota, USA: Miranda Tapsell and Nakkiah Lui meet Mary Kunesh Podein (centre) at Minnesota State Capitol.

“Being clean was the reason why your children didn’t get taken away,” Lui says.

“And we laughed about it, but it was also so incredibly sad: because of that shared trauma and those shared practices of colonisation that happened around the world.”

The pair also travelled to Minnesota, which has since become the epicentre of a renewed global Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in police custody.

Tapsell says it’s been “really tough” to see the footage of the unrest.

“We spoke to a lot of Ojibwe and Dakota people who are the traditional owners of that area and it was just so amazing to have these conversations on the other side of the world, and their history could almost be cut and paste [with Australian history].”

Debutante deftly shifts between a fun, gently mocking critique of outdated traditions and a deeper dissection of the darker history of colonialism, violence and oppression upon which such traditions are built.

It pivots from giggling over etiquette classes in London (where Lui learns a hard lesson about the burp-inducing properties of champagne) to raw conversations about how First Nations people are trying to carve out their own place in Western society.

Lui says history and politics was always going to form part of the discussion.

“Inevitably you want to be able to talk about things comprehensively and in a way where it’s not a lecture, it’s a conversation,” she says.

“Often we think that politics … or being political, is something you can opt in and out of. For myself, I think politics are totally a part of your identity, because that’s what constructs your identity.”

For Lui, the way in which African-American and Indigenous communities have claimed ownership of the debutante ball is, in itself, an act of rebellion – and a cause for optimism.

“For me, that is creating hope for people. That is saying to them: you do belong in this world, you do have value, you can change things – and it is happening all around us.

“The way that institutions do things, the history that we have to bear, the legacy that colonialism has left us – we can change that by working sideways, by creating hope.”

Debutante: Race, Resistance & Girl Power is an Audible Original podcast and is available here.

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