real life

Marlee's dad was waiting by the school gate. A friend asked: 'Why is he black?'

Marlee Silva is a proud Kamilaroi Dunghutti woman and the host of Mamamia’s new podcast Tiddas 4 Tiddas, where every week she will be speaking to some of the brightest and most interesting Indigenous women in Australia.

But on No Filter, the 23-year-old told host Mia Freedman her story. And it’s a great one.

Here’s part of their fascinating chat…


MIA: “Tell me about the day that your dad came to pick you up from school and everything changed.

MARLEE: “I was probably four weeks into Year Seven. Twelve years old, very nerdy and a bit socially awkward, which is something I’m proud of in hindsight. But I was very worried about making friends. When you’re that age, you have a best friend for about a week, and I had a new one. It was Friday afternoon, and the skies opened at three o’clock and our bell went at 3:05… I was racing down to the [school] gate with my new best friend, in the rain, mucking around. And just as I got to the end of the gate, I heard someone call out my name. I looked up and there, standing in his pyjamas (because he’s a shift worker and had been asleep during the day) and bright-blue gumboots with this big umbrella, was my dad. I was mortified. I couldn’t believe he was there in his pyjamas and especially those gumboots.

“I got back to school on Monday, and I kind of thought it would be something that was forgotten, but it wasn’t. Within first or second period, that same girl who was with me when I was running down the driveway, turned around and asked me who it was who picked me up from school. And I thought [she was going to say], ‘Oh my gosh, why was your dad wearing pyjamas? How embarrassing! blah blah.’ But instead when I told her it was my dad, she said, ‘Oh, why is your dad black?’

“Never in my life had I heard someone be called a colour… And after that I was outed to my school; every teacher suddenly knew that I was Aboriginal. It’s not like I ever thought it was a secret, I just had not worn it in the same way that I do now.”


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MIA: So, you say that growing up you’d never heard anyone referred to as a colour — that sounds surprising to me. Did you grow up in a community that was very mixed or multicultural, and that never inspired comment? Or did your parents shield you from it?

MARLEE: “I think they did a very good job of shielding me. I grew up in the Sutherland Shire of Sydney, which is like Wonder Bread land. Most of the population is white. It was this naivety, because it should have been obvious to me as a kid that my dad looks really different to my friends’ dads, or something like that. But I just didn’t [notice]…

“I’m thankful for it, because from the moment that happened, I was forced to make a decision around whether I could pass as white for my schooling, or I could embrace my culture, which is the decision that I chose.”

MIA: “I’m thinking back to that 12-year-old girl in Year Seven, who you described as pretty self-conscious. What was it like… did word, sort of, go around [about you being Aboriginal]?

MARLEE: “It started with whispers and then turned into jokes, and it turned into questions that I wasn’t prepared for. That ranged from ‘What do witchetty grubs taste like?’ to ‘Well, you’re not really Aboriginal?’ Or even things like a kid would call me an ‘abo’, which is hard for me to say out loud. I would get very, very upset, and they would tell me, ‘Oh, no. My cousin’s neighbour is Aboriginal, and they say that and that’s fine.’ Like me being upset was made no sense….

“So I learnt very quickly that the decision I’d made to not pass [as white] and to not just act like it’s something that doesn’t define who I am, I realised that was not an easy choice to make.”


MIA: What was your earlier upbringing like? Indigenous rituals, or language, or stories, culture — how did it happen in your house?

MARLEE: “It was very inherently connected to family and connected to spending time with my nan, my aunties, uncles and cousins. That’s what being Aboriginal meant. It wasn’t traditional by any means. We didn’t know language, because that’s part of the dispossession that’s happened and that’s [one of] the repercussions of that. But it was telling stories and yarns about our family, without it necessarily being overtly about culture.

“I have actually questioned, did I feel Aboriginal before that moment [at school]? And I know that I did, because my mum has this brilliant story.

“My dad was Rugby League player, and at one of his games we were all sat there. I think Mum said I was about three… One of the players was sponsored by a courier company, and [the announcer] said, ‘So-and-so is sponsored by so-and-so Couriers’. And me, being three and not really understanding what [courier] meant, turns around and goes, ‘Oh! I’m a Koori! I’m a Koori, Mum!’

“Everyone lost it. Apparently it was the cutest thing ever.

“But [my identity] is always something that I’ve been really proud of — even when I was mishearing ‘courier’.”

To hear Marlee and Mia’s entire chat, listen to No Filter below or in your favourite podcast app.