Linda Burney: Diversifying Australia's political system

Updated 10:48 PM ET, Tue March 7, 2017

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(CNN)Linda Burney remembers her childhood all too well.

In those days, she says she was invisible to the Australian government and its people. Aboriginals did not have the same rights as other Australians, and were treated as foreigners in their own land.
"I grew up at a time in this country when Aboriginal people were in some instances still seen as the lowest form of human existence," she tells CNN.
"I remember sitting in a classroom in what they called 'social studies' and we were (told we were) going to study the 'exotic people of the world.'
"I was an A-grade student, sitting in that class room as the only Aboriginal child, being taught that my ancestors were savages. That we were the closest thing to stone age man living on Earth today."
Burney was abandoned by her mother when she was born.
Born in 1957, Burney was abandoned by her white mother -- who she says was too ashamed to raise a baby that was not only aboriginal, but also born out of wedlock.
"I was born at a time when being Aboriginal was seen as an absolute deficit," she says.
Burney has spent much of her life overcoming this prejudice and paving the way for future generations of female indigenous Australians.
She was one of the first Aboriginal graduates of her university, one of the country's first Aboriginal teachers, the first Aboriginal person to serve in the New South Wales Parliament, and the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives.

Growing up aboriginal

Born in the small country town of Whitton, in New South Wales, Burney was raised by her non-Indigenous great aunt and uncle.
"They were in their mid 60s when they took me on and it's just amazing that they did it ... for them to make that decision to raise an Aboriginal baby in a small country town at that time was extraordinary," she recalls.
She says it was their example that made her the woman she is today.
"They instilled in me extraordinarily solid values that have remained with me all my life -- you know, the value of treating others as you would like to be treated, the value of honesty (and) the value of hard work."
Despite being abandoned by her mother when she was a baby, Burney says the pair had some contact.
"She visited me growing up (when I was) a small child, but we never developed a very close relationship, for all the obvious reasons."

Slow realization

Burney says it wasn't until she was four years old that she began to realize how different she was from her family.
"Back in the day, people didn't have cameras, so there would be a traveling photographer who would come around and knock on your door and take family portraits," she says.
"There was a photograph of me and my four cousins -- who were all very blonde and blue eyed -- and then I was dark with very dark brown eyes and I remember looking at that photograph as a small child and thinking that I was very different to my cousins."