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The Names We Use and the Labels We Choose


We are super lucky to have Sarah Burr back with another guest post for us this month.  Sarah says this post was inspired by an article we shared on the Country to Canberra page a while ago about Magnolia Maymuru, a Yolngu woman competing in Miss World. The article was written by New Idea and the title of the article (“the first Aboriginal to run for Miss World” …Aboriginal what?) perpetuated outdated terminology when referring to Aboriginal people.  So Sarah has written a ‘how-to’ on the correct way to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and why certain labels are preferred over others.  We thought that seeing as today, August 4, is National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day (Children’s Day), it would be good timing to share this great advice from Sarah.

Sarah Burr is one inspirational lady! She has a B. Environmental Management in Sustainable Development (Hons) from the University of Queensland, a Grad. Cert. in Public Administration from the University of Canberra, and a Master of Agribusiness via distance through the University of Melbourne. Sarah works full time at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Indigenous Affairs, is a member of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Advisory Council, a foundation member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Canberra Hub, a YMCA Canberra Board Member, and plays the violin in the National Capital Orchestra. Sarah believes women can do anything.

The names we use and labels we choose – dismantling racism one word at a time.

Written by Sarah Burr

The words we use to describe each other matter a lot. While many people profess to shun labels, the naming of a person or collection of people is very useful in identifying groups within society for myriad reasons. Self-identification with a label is even more important, as it demonstrates a person’s preference for the way the world recognises them. The intricacies of identifiers, and the subtle differences between supposedly synonymic labels, can be both a hazardous path and a pathway to greater understanding.

An excellent example of the confusion that abounds in correctly naming a group within Australian society is with regards to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Notice I didn’t use the word ‘Indigenous’ just then. ‘Indigenous’ is a word that can cause offence, as it is a colonial term applied to First Nations people all around the world, and generalises various ethnicities and cultures into one. However, the use of the word ‘Indigenous’ is commonly used in the media and by the government so if you must use it, the accepted syntax is the use of a capital ‘I’ for Australian Indigenous people, and a lower case ‘i’ for indigenous peoples in a global context.

The hazard of labelling groups, especially as an outside observer, is the capacity to cause offence by choosing and using the incorrect term. As young women reading this, I’m sure you are aware of all the words that can hurt you or make you feel excluded. It doesn’t have to be obvious gender-based name calling or sexist jokes that upset you (although, understandably, these will); often it is the unintentional or uninformed language choices that cause insult.

So, how do you correctly refer to a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people without causing offence? The first step is to understand the correct use of collective terms for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Using words such as ‘Aboriginals’ can cause offence as it is another colonial term like ‘Indigenous’, and in the interests of correct grammar, it is actually an adjective. You can say ‘Aboriginal people’ or ‘Aboriginal person’, and, as with Indigenous/indigenous, should capitalise the ‘A’ when referring to Australian Aboriginal people in order to differentiate from other aboriginal peoples around the world. You should also reference Torres Strait Islander people separately to Aboriginal people, because people from the Torres Strait identify strongly with their islands, and have cultural traditions that are distinct to them. Using ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ instead of ‘Indigenous’ is preferable as it allows for the separate recognition of each major collective First Nations cultural group in Australia. These preferences and conventions are mostly used in formal communications and written language, for assignments or essays as I am demonstrating here, or by people such as journalists or politicians.

As with other groups in society, self-identification terminology is very important and nuanced in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

The words Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use to refer to themselves all depend on context. In formal situations, as mentioned above, it is obviously more appropriate to refer to oneself as an Aboriginal person, or a Torres Strait Islander person, or in the case of individuals with mixed heritage or a group of people of either background, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person/people. In less formal situations, such as personal conversations or more relaxed gatherings, people may prefer to reference their collective geographical background, such as Murri in Queensland, Palawa in Tasmania, or Koori in New South Wales. Others again, may wish to refer to their language group or mob only, such as Gunditjmara (country in western Victoria) or Kuku Yalanji (country in Far North Queensland). The use of terms such as ‘blackfulla’ and ‘black person’ are usually only used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people referring to themselves, and shouldn’t be used by those outside the community unless permitted to do so due to the potential for negative racial connotations. Racist terms such as ‘half-caste’ and ‘abo’ have no place in contemporary Australian society as they reflect the trauma caused by assimilation policies like child removals. Similarly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come in all shades, shapes and sizes, (often due to the aforementioned assimilation policies) so if someone refers to themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or Nyoongar or Yolngu, questioning their legitimacy to claim their heritage based on appearances can be very hurtful. It is best to accept people’s self-identification and let them tell you their story if they wish to share it.

The pathway to greater understanding begins when conversations are had, relationships are forged, and questions are asked. If you don’t know what label/s a person prefers, ask them. A polite “who’s your mob?” is an easy conversation starter that demonstrates you have an awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. By respecting the wishes of the individual you are speaking with or referring to, you are making them feel included and valued. You are also helping to dismantle the subtle racism that remains in our community today; by perpetuating the use of inappropriate words and names, we allow racism to fester, and continue to exclude people from mainstream society.