You can’t say that!

Each year when teachers set their professional learning goals and discuss their career ambitions with their line managers, they do so by reflecting on 7 professional standards.

Invariably, when I mentor early career teachers and ask them about their perceived weaknesses as an educator, they mention the standard that refers to the embedding of Indigenous perspectives in learning.

And it’s not because they’re racists. In fact, all too often it’s because they care too much. So much so that they don’t want to do or say something that could be culturally insensitive. They also don’t want to be tokenistic.

They’d rather simply avoid the whole thing.

If, like them, you worry about what you can and can’t say, well done to you. That means that you are on the right path towards supporting reconciliation.

It means that you are curious and open-minded, and willing to learn. You are thinking beyond your online echo chamber.

So let me share with you some things that I have learned.

First: How do we respectfully refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?

You can’t say Aborigine, tribal, primitive, native, blackfella, ATSI or indigenous. You also can’t use Aboriginal as a noun, ie “she is an Aboriginal.”

Instead, you should say Aboriginal Australians, First Nations peoples, First Australians or Indigenous Australians (note the use of capital letters). Even better, find out where the person is from and refer to them by their homeland, ie “he is a Ngunnawal man”.

Secondly, How do we teach about cultural practices such as storytelling and art?

You can’t say Dreamtime myths/folklore/legends and you can’t do dot painting. That’s cultural appropriation.

Instead, you should refer to the time of the dreaming (which is ongoing) and the stories of the Aboriginal peoples. You should acknowledge and give credit to all First Nations artists and explain their cultural significance.

Rather than trying to teach ABOUT culture, consider teaching THROUGH culture and in very thing that you do, consider an Aboriginal point of view.

Third, you can’t make reference to a person’s Aboriginal heritage with terms like half caste, mixed blood, a percentage, part whatever, semi this or mixed that.

You should acknowledge that those who identify as Aboriginal people and are accepted in their community as Aboriginal, are Aboriginal people and that’s that. No DNA test or family tree inspection required. Skin colour is irrelevant.

Fourth, you can’t use words that originated within Aboriginal groups such as “mob” or “deadly”.

These are considered in-group terms and it is not appropriate for a non-Aboriginal person to use them unless they have community acceptance for its use.

Fifth and perhaps most important, unless you are an Indigenous person, you can’t ever assume to understand what it’s like to be an Indigenous person.

However, you can be an ally to the First Australians. And you can start by sharing what you have learnt from this blog with others.

You can support Aboriginal businesses and involve yourself in celebrations of Aboriginal people.

Still unsure of the most respectful approach? Ask! Consult an Elder or a community group or a Department advisory service.

Together, we can close the gap.


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