Why I prefer the term 'black'

Author Celeste Liddle.

Author Celeste Liddle.

It's not uncommon for people to ask me what term I prefer to use when describing my background from my father's side of the family. In most instances, my answer is plainly and simply "Black".

In the past when I have stated this to non-Indigenous people, some have shifted uncomfortably. This is because they make the wrongful assumption that the term 'black' focuses on outward appearance and is therefore offensive. I, however, have long preferred ‘black’ and the many terms associated with it. There are many reasons why this is the case.

I am formally an "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, but due to my dual heritage and my personal alignment with the sovereignty movement, I am never just Australian. My father wasn't considered Australian until he was 17 years old, so I find the term "First Australians" particularly irksome. Aboriginal people were the last ones to be considered "Australian" in this country, and definitely the last individuals to be considered "people". 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...

A lot of our community organisations are currently dropping the term ’Indigenous’ (which came into popular usage when Amanda Vanstone was the Minister for Indigenous Affairs) and returning to ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ with the acronym ‘ATSI’.


That’s because ‘Indigenous’ homogenises two broad and distinct groups. What's more, it occasionally gets misappropriated by people wishing to discredit the unique status that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold as 'first peoples' of this country. There’s also the fact that it only means ‘native to the land’ when the alternative, ‘Aborigine’ means ‘an original inhabitant of a country or region who has been there from the earliest known times.’ Both these terms are, however, umbrella terms I use only for convenience, and they are not our own.

I am generally happy to be referred to by some of our own collective terms; eg: Koorie, Goori, Palawa, Murri. Being Arrernte though, and coming from a region of the country where we don't use collective terms apart from greater tribal groupings, I am technically none of those.

When referring to myself, and particularly talking with someone who I assume won’t understand what I mean by ‘Arrernte’, I tend to use the term ‘Black’. Why? Because in this country the term ‘Black’ carries a lot of political weight. It is word that has power and a term that we've 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 is defiant. It proclaims resilience in the face of harsh assimilation policies proudly. People sometimes fear that otherness, when what they should do is embrace it and recognise that it is important and something to celebrate. 

I like other reclaimed terms too such as ‘mob’ (our people). That a term was used pejoratively when we were considered no more than animals, but we've since adopted it and it’s now a commonly used colloquial term in the community is something I enjoy.

But here's the thing: there’s no set of rules that everyone agrees on. 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.