If you followed the last year’s Black Lives Matter uprisings, you will have noticed the word Blak being used by writers and commentators in Australia. Perhaps you dismissed it as a spelling error, or just considered it a bit of a head-scratcher until the next curio snagged your attention.
Or you might have wondered if there was some new linguistic pitfall opening up that you did not understand and feared to navigate.
Language and references to Indigenous Australia are dynamic and fast-changing. Several years ago a friend visited Melbourne and asked me what was going on with the whole Black/Blak thing. He was a world away from Aboriginal affairs but had observed a shift in the articles spilling into his social media feed. So, we played “Ask an Aborigine”. (I can say Aborigine; you shouldn’t).
If you’re curious, interested, baffled, or thinking of super-casually dropping some words into a conversation or piece of writing yourself, this handy usage guide is for you.
Aboriginal or aboriginal
Let’s start with a worrying trend I’ve observed creeping into common practice over the past decade: the reversion to the uncapitalised aboriginal. I’m not even sure it’s due to not knowing better. I think in most instances, it’s deliberate because it’s usually surrounded by other, grammatically correct capitalisations. It’s been common and correct practice since the late-1970s to capitalise Aboriginal, so, you know, get the “caps” right then proceed to the next black tile on the pathway to personal Recognition. Blak Tip: Language is important and respect goes a long way.
Indigenous or indigenous
Same thing with Indigenous – you better put a cap on it, as Queen Bey would say. This is more recent practice and many publications and newsrooms (though not this one) are yet to shift with the times and update their house style. Insistence on its usage is also sometimes belittled, usually along the lines of: “There’s more important things in Aboriginal Affairs that we should be worried about.” Snore. Watch how we walk and chew gum at the same time.
Also, it’s weird that everybody accepts and celebrates the sporting parlance: “It’s the little, 1 per cent efforts that make a real champion”, but are quick to dismiss the same logic when it applies to communication. So be a champion, uppercase the I.
Blak or Black or Blackfella or Blackfulla
Let’s get back to Blak. The provenance of this term goes back to 1994 and Aboriginal artist Destiny Deacon, (in pic above) who urged art curators Hetti Perkins and Claire Williamson to use Blak instead of Black for an exhibition. It ended up being titled Blakness: Blak City Culture. Last year, I asked Deacon the reason she advocated Blak and it came sharply back to the issue of representation. Growing up, Deacon always heard white people calling Aboriginal people “black c—s”. She wanted to take the “c” out of Black.
Between then and now, the use of Blak has taken on additional functions. It still signifies urban, contemporary Indigeneity, but has also become important in differentiating the Blak experience from the racialised experiences of non-Indigenous communities of colour. Blackfella or Blackfulla is now often used for the same purpose, but Blak also carries with it connotations of actively engaged, critical-political conscience, which Blackfella or Blackfulla, arguably, doesn’t always convey. The concept and relational use of Blak also continues to emerge, which adds to its dynamism.
There’s no difference in meaning between Blackfella or Blackfulla – usage is just a matter of individual choice.
Can white people use these terms? All the mob I know have no issue with whitefullas using Blackfulla/Blackfella, but I have heard strange tales of people employed in “human resources” taking issue with white staff using it. So, probably best to just try to avoid that HR mob altogether. No problem with white people using Blak in writing, but like Black it is more fraught in speech. Avoid swanning around liberally calling Aboriginal people Blacks. That won’t end well.
Country (note the capitalisation)
Recently, my use of Country (capped and personified) in an article about the significance and power of traditional language momentarily baffled my non-Indigenous editor. It was important, I wrote, that the initial screenings of a film happened outside and on Noongar Boodjar (homeland) “so that Country could hear its language being spoken”. My editor, who was applying conventional Western perspectives and grammatical rules not equipped to convey the philosophical and spiritual cosmology, and time-space continuum of First Nations people’s notions of Country, was stumped. Yeah, it’s pretty heavy. That’s why we capitalise it. Same as you probably do with God.
Mob is another dynamic word, and a bit of a shape-shifter. It can refer to Blackfullas; it can refer to Whitefullas; it can be deprecating; it can be dignified. Always be careful of them top-camp mob telling you good mob you shouldn’t use mob.
Also be wary of over-use.
Indigenous or Aboriginal or First Nations
This one will get me into trouble because it really boils down to personal choice. Some mob rail against the use of First Nations, viewing it as being imported from North America in the 1990s during a period of rich cultural exchange with our brothers and sisters over that way. I’ve found that the mob that reject the application of First Nations, generally prefer to be referred to as Aboriginal.
Indigenous is a tricky one in this context. It came into common usage during the reign of John Howard and many mob continue to hold Indigenous in a similar regard to which they hold him. It is permissible in bureaucratic circumstances, and to interchange with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and First Nations in a piece of writing, but it still makes some of us cringe inside. The Howard years were tough to stomach. Younger mob seem to be more accepting of Indigenous, generally speaking.
Abbreviations like ATSI or TSI? No. Disrespectful. Stop it.
Be even more specific when you can too. Which brings us to the final entry for this round of Ask An Aborigine.
I’m a Goori not a Koori
Goori/Koori/Murri/Noongar communicate the region we hail from and perhaps some of the traditional languages, cultural beliefs and practices we carry, and the nexus of our familial relations. Broadly speaking, Murries are from up Queensland; Murdies are from kind of south-west Queensland and parts of western NSW; Koories are from up there too, but carrying on down into Victoria and around southern NSW from Newcastle down. Goories are coastal mob from Newcastle areas and heading north. Then over southern WA and some ways into SA you get Noongar. And I can already see how I’m going to get growled at for attempting this.
My advice is to get to know the First Nation you have settled on and the neighbouring First Nations that surround you, and continue to work outwards. It’s also always good to ask. Blackfullas will tell you, if you are willing to listen. Sadly, listening is not common enough. Yet, when it comes to the elements of writing, editing, or just talking about Blackfullas, it’s the little things that are most likely to yank your coat-tails over your head and deliver a kick up your djutu. No need to explain what that means.
Jack Latimore is the Indigenous affairs journalist at The Age. He is a Birpai man with family ties to Thungutti and Gumbaynggirr nations. He is an experienced journalist who was previously managing editor of NITV Digital. Jack gave us permission to share this article.