Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why I prefer "black"

Earlier this week I had the question put to me regarding what term I prefer to use when describing my background from Dad's side of the family. My answer was "Black". Previously when I have stated this I have been queried by non-Indigenous people, some who have even deemed the term offensive because it focuses on appearance; or so it has been interpreted anyway. I have, however, long preferred "black" and the many associated terms. Because of how things can be misinterpreted, and because correct terminology is contentious at this time in the community, I thought I would take the opportunity to state why I prefer "black" and what it means to me.

In the first instance, when referring to my identity I would say "Arrernte Australian". "Arrernte" is my tribal background and comes from three branches of my father's extended family. "Australian" is from my mother's side. My father wasn't considered Australian until he was 17 years old, so I find the term "First Australians" particularly irksome and historically inaccurate. Aboriginal people were the last people to be considered "Australian" in this country, and even the last people to be considered "people" and to gloss over that by using the term "First Australians" washes history clean. Plus it's a term used in a Seekers song which I find irritating and which Pauline Hanson was once filmed singing...

I've digressed. At this point in time, a lot of our community organisations are dropping the term "Indigenous"; which came into popular usage when Amanda Vanstone was the Minister for Indigenous Affairs (amongst other ministries, all of which suffered) and returning to "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander" with the acronym "ATSI". We've talked about doing the same at work. The logic behind this change back is twofold and understandable:

  • There are two broader groups of Indigenous people of Australia and to homogenise these distinct groups by using an umbrella term like "Indigenous" is limiting and offensive
  • The term "Indigenous" itself is nondescript meaning "native to the land". Rednecks like to appropriate the term stating that as they were born here so they're native as well and therefore indigenous. "Aborigine", on the other hand means "an original inhabitant of a country or region who has been there from the earliest known times" therefore making the distinction "original" where the term "indigenous" does not.
When it comes to either of these terms, I use them both as umbrella terminology; for sheer convenience when talking of the population as a whole, or when making the distinction between mainlanders and islanders. I will also use them to describe myself when talking to mainstream people who would be confused by the term "Arrernte". I would rarely use the term "Aboriginal Australian" though because whilst "Arrernte" refers to a tribal nation, "Aboriginal" does not and as someone who is in the sovereignty/treaty camp I prefer reinforcing sovereignty by stating my "nationhood" (for want of a better term). "Australian" is exclusively, in my case, used to refer to my mother's side of the family and I never identify as just Australian. Personally though, I have no real love for the term "Aboriginal" nor for the term "Indigenous" and a lot of the discussion now on correct terminology to use for our orgs and ourselves is not something I passionately align myself with.

I do like many of our regional collective terms eg: Koorie, Goori, Palawa, Murri etc and am generally happy to be referred to by them for convenience, but being Arrernte and coming from a region where we don't use collective terms apart from greater tribal groupings, I am technically none of those. These terms, however, are all derived from language and therefore come from our own entomologies which is preferable to the imposed "Aboriginal".

When referring to myself, though, and when not using "Arrernte", I tend to use the term "Black". Why? Because in this country the term "Black" carries a lot of political weight. It is a term that we're reclaimed. After years of removal policies and stolen generations based on the tone of one's skin and their alleged blood quanta, to state that you are "Black" regardless of what your actual tone is is defiant. It reinforces otherness in the face of assimilation policies proudly. People fear that otherness, as has been illustrated by some media columns, when what they should do is embrace it and recognise that it is important and something to celebrate. 

I don't use the term "person/woman of colour" for myself because, from an Aboriginal perspective, this phrase does not carry the same political weight and indeed, to be "of colour" to me is to also be comfortable with people defining my background by those old blood quanta percentages, which I reject. Additionally, I also quite like other reclaimed terms such as "mob" whilst also referring to non-Indigenous people as "non-mob". That a term used pejoratively when we were under the Flora and Fauna Act can now be a colloquial reclaimed collectivist term is something I quite like. 

Now here's the thing: this is not a how-to guide when defining people's backgrounds. As I have stated earlier, we are not homogenous, and whilst I've stated and defined why I like and dislike various terms, other people do not feel the same way. And nor should they. It's up to the individual, the family, the community to define what they are most comfortable with and for others to respect that. Too many times I have seen non-Indigenous people state what the preferred terms for Indigenous people are based on what they have been told at one point or what they assume from their gathered knowledge, and I have shuddered at what they have come up with. Don't tell; ask! Then go from there. You can bet after years of being defined by the government we have some very strong opinions.   

EDIT: I have been asked questions re: Flora and Fauna Act, and fair enough too. I have not published these questions. I am referring to state Acts such as the one that existed in NSW and mentioned by Linda Burney in her maiden speech, but have worded this badly. In light of this, I have asked them to remove this line in the Daily Life version to avoid confusion


  1. Thank you so much for writing this! As someone completely outside of Aboriginal culture, but who has regular discussion/rants about what-do-we-call-ourselves issues in the disability community, it's fascinating and very much appreciated.

    I used to be a journalist, and the style guide said we always had to use "Indigenous" - which felt increasingly uncomfortable as I met more and more people who didn't use that term themselves.

    How would you suggest raising the question? I can be a bit of a social numpty, and live in the vague fear of accidentally offending people. (Not Indigenous people in particular, just people in general. Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time is my superpower.)

  2. Thanks Celeste,
    I grew up in a multi racial public housing suburb in Perth, Black, White (Eastern European, Mediterranean, Irish), Polynesian + small pockets of African + Asian. My Black neighbours (which produced several talented AFL players) were often referred to as Indigenous, Indigenous Australians and other politically correct terms. I know people were using these terms with the best intentions but to me it seemed to be some kind of cop out. When in discussion with a white neighbour about a local black person in regards to footy or something I'd often be corrected by the other whites in the room if I referred to someone we knew as black rather than indigenous. Don't misunderstand it wasn't a perfect racial harmonious community blacks were often referred to as Boongs, Abos, Niggers, Black C+++ts, by racists of all races in our community but very rarely to their face, there was a lot of racial hatred in that community.
    Having Black friends since I was knee high, having fist fights with them after school on the basketball court, underage drinking together when someone would weasel a bottle of scotch from their folks, just doin thing kids do.
    I can never understand what it feels like to have been treated so poorly by white settlement but I think I'm comfortable enough around my black friends just to refer to them as black, I hope my black friends appreciate that I'm comfortable being straight up with them and not having to tip toe around a correct racial name. If I do ever offend someone I'll wear it, if someone identifies as Indigenous Australian and wishes to be addressed as such then I will do so.
    If me and my knock around buddys from the neighbourhood can bridge the gap then I hope we can all do so some day, if Northern Ireland + South Africa can do it then we can.
    Thanks Celeste
    Great blog

  3. Thanks for the post Celeste. Looking forward to sharing this one to the Critical Classroom audience. Shock! Horror! Not all blackfullas think the same way.

  4. This post was helpful for some people to understand what "black" meant in "Black Rainbow". I used it as an example of the many shades (defintions) of "black".

  5. Hi Celeste, found your blog today and really enjoying it. Looking forward to your future posts :)