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. 


8 comments so far

  • Well said Celeste, good on you for telling it like it is. Your position, or argument, could well form a basis for discussion on how (if) we finally recognise this part of our history in the Australian Constitution. And in principle, we should do that.

    One minor point though, is it inconsistent to say: "the unique status that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold as 'first peoples' of this country", when most people take country to refer to Australia? Perhaps one should say "land "?

    Maybe a small point, but your article is a good start to getting this issue into openand frank discussion and, hopefully, resolution for all.

    Date and time
    February 27, 2014, 7:34AM
    • Wonderful essay.
      My only question would be, where would you define or limit the point that the term 'black' applies. I get somewhat perplexed when I see people with no apparent lineage claiming to be 'black' for the sole reason of political gain. (By the way, from the photo with the story your lineage is clear).
      I guess I am thinking of the Centrelink queues where some young fella claims to be aboriginal because his grandmother's grandmother (ie 5 generations back) was Koori, but every other member of the family has been European. Is there a point where aboriginal people feel their heritage is being hijacked by others for self gain?

      Date and time
      February 27, 2014, 7:55AM
      • Your argument regarding the term "First Australians" was compelling. Well said.

        Prior to that term I had used the term "Koorie", but mistakenly as I'd grown up in a Koorie region and knew no better.

        I think the best course is to avoid any terms - we're all people. But in the few instances where there is a requirement to use a term, I had been using "First Australian" and now see how deceptive and manipulative that term is, coming from the mouth of a white man.

        Date and time
        February 27, 2014, 8:19AM
        • Won't it be a nice day when we're all simply 'people'.

          Date and time
          February 27, 2014, 8:34AM
          • How about just be Australian? Why cant we all just be Australian? Rather than deliberately seeking a distinction based on racial grounds. We are all one race, one people, regardless of how we look or where we come from. Until we embrace that, and while we insist upon seeking division then the sins of the past will continue to loom over our society

            Date and time
            February 27, 2014, 9:20AM
            • "That’s because ‘Indigenous’ homogenises two broad and distinct groups."

              But "black" homogenises multiple broad and distinct groups - so does "white", "Asian", etc. Even "Australian" is such a blanket term - after all, we come from everywhere.

              Red Pony
              Date and time
              February 27, 2014, 9:28AM
              • Nice article. I did a fair bit of ecological work along the Murray and had quite a bit to do with communities and liaison officers. I remember getting totally confused early on because there's a stack of form manuals and they're contradictory and also clash with the diversity of opinions people themselves have. In the end I was visiting a field site with our liaison officer and I asked her what she thought and she said just ask. Something I find interesting is that a lot of people like the term Aboriginal yet many guidelines tell you not to say that. I guess it depends on where you come from plus there is a lot of conflict between groups of people.

                Date and time
                February 27, 2014, 9:47AM
                • As a seriously hearing impaired person I wear the large over-ear aids and I think they help identify my need for consideration from those with whom I have a need to talk mano a mano, never been one for vanity and the unseen tiny models are not always helpful for that.

                  I hate the term disabled, it has connotations for pity...I prefer to be known as a "Clunk"....it raised awareness, creates mirth, and breaks the ice at parties.

                  I am also a proud Celt, but do not wear it on my sleeve.

                  What was that dear...?
                  Date and time
                  February 27, 2014, 10:06AM

                  Make a comment

                  You are logged in as [Logout]

                  All information entered below may be published.

                  Error: Please enter your screen name.

                  Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

                  Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

                  Error: Please enter your comment.

                  Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

                  Post to

                  You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

                  Thank you

                  Your comment has been submitted for approval.

                  Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.