Importance of language

How we use language matters. It’s important to always remember that we’re not just using terms to refer to historical events or abstract groups, we’re talking about real people. Listening to a person’s preferences when it comes to how they’re referred to is an essential part of respecting that person.

Complexity

There’s no rulebook when it comes to using appropriate terminology regarding Indigenous Australians. This is because Indigenous people across Australia are diverse; there are many different experiences and opinions regarding appropriate terminology and it’s difficult to identify terminology that’s acceptable to all groups (1). The following guidelines only generally represent Indigenous people’s preferences. It’s good to ask local groups to advise on the most appropriate terminology for their region.

Historical context

Terms regarding Indigenous people are layered with a history of dominating, discriminating against, misunderstanding and misrepresenting Indigenous people and culture (2) . Throughout our colonial history, some of the names used to refer to Indigenous Australians reflected the common belief that Indigenous people were inferior to white people, or even less than human.

Consequently, many of these terms have negative connotations and should be replaced with words that are more respectful and less hurtful towards Indigenous people. It’s important to be sensitive to the meanings and historic context of certain words. This also applies to language used to refer to non-Indigenous Australians.

Living document

Appropriate terminology is continually changing as more voices are listened to, and enter into, a national conversation regarding Indigenous matters. We need to continually listen to Indigenous people and adopt preferred terminology as the conversations evolve (3) .

Process

Australians Together developed these guidelines through a process of listening to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and learning from existing work. We recognised that language is a concern for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It can be painful and time-consuming for Indigenous people to repeatedly explain why certain language is hurtful. Meanwhile, non-Indigenous Australians are often confused by terminology and can be afraid of joining conversations for fear of unintentionally using offensive or inappropriate language.

With this in mind, we began to research existing guidelines produced by a range of government departments, educational institutions and non-government organisations. We used this as a starting point to develop our own guidelines. We then undertook paid consultations with Indigenous Elders and leaders from South Australia, Victoria, Australian Capital Territory and Queensland, who reviewed the guidelines and gave recommendations.

Access the language and terminology guide here (2.2MB).

Whilst it’s not possible to achieve consensus on all terms, we’ve sought to respectfully acknowledge the various points of view expressed throughout the consultation process. We continue to invite feedback so that these guidelines can evolve. Contact contact@australianstogether.org.au.