A Guide to Using Respectful and Inclusive Language and Terminology
How we talk about reconciliation is just as important as the actions we take.
Language itself is active. It impacts attitudes, understandings and relationships in a very real sense.
Using respectful and inclusive language and terminology is an essential part of reconciliation and strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community.
Consider this guide with advice from your local community. This may help you prepare your written messages, such as your Vision for Reconciliation and Acknowledgement of Country, as well as in everyday communications.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identities are diverse across Australia. Always seek advice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in your local school or early learning service community on preferences and protocols around respectful language.
Referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
Using ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ is often best practice when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people generally.
‘Aboriginals’ or ‘Aborigines’ are generally considered to be outdated terms, while ‘Aboriginal’ alone is not inclusive of the diversity of cultures and identities across Australia. ‘Peoples’ or ‘people’ should always follow.
The term ‘Aboriginal peoples’ is not inclusive of Torres Strait Islander peoples. Refer to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when the intention is to refer to all First Peoples of Australia.
Using 'First Peoples' and ‘First Nations’ is also generally acceptable. They should always be pluralised. These terms respectfully encompass the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identities.
This respect for diversity extends to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘histories,’ ‘perspectives,’ ‘ways of being’ and ‘contributions’. These should also be pluralised.
Don’t abbreviate ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Torres Strait Islander,’ or use the acronym ‘ATSI.’
Never use terms such as ‘full-blood,’ ‘half-caste’ and ‘quarter-caste’ – they are extremely offensive.
The term ‘Indigenous’ can offend people in some places. However, there are some situations where the term is accepted, for example:
- an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person prefers and/or has approved the word ‘Indigenous’ to be used
- an organisation has appropriately referred to a program or job title (for example, ‘Indigenous Programs Unit’ or ‘Indigenous Programs Manager’)
- the word ‘Indigenous’ is appropriately embedded into an organisational policy (for example, the Australian Government’s Indigenous Employment Policy)
- when referring to non-Indigenous (non-Aboriginal or non-Torres Strait Islander) Australians – terms such as ‘other Australians’ or ‘the wider community’ may also be used.
The difference between ‘peoples’ and ‘people’
‘People’ (singular) refers to:
- a single geo-cultural community (for example, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation)
- Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander individuals (for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our school community).
‘Peoples’ (plural) refers to diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities/geo-cultural community groups across Australia.
- the Ngunnawal, Ngambri and Ngarigo peoples of the wider Canberra region
- the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures connected to Lands across Australia.
Always capitalise ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Torres Strait Islander’. This is a simple yet important way to demonstrate respect.
You should also capitalise:
- First Peoples/Nations/Australians
- Traditional Owners/Custodians
- Country or Land (when referring to an area of land, sea and sky associated with a distinct group of people or First Nations community)
- particular Language groups or geo-cultural communities
- Acknowledgement of Country, Welcome to Country, and the names of other cultural practices (particularly when the meanings or perspectives behind the words – such as ‘acknowledge’ or ‘welcome’ – are distinct in their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural context).
You do not need to capitalise ‘reconciliation,’ unless naming Reconciliation Australia as an organisation or referring to a formal program or document, like your Reconciliation Action Plan.
When referring to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children, students, staff, or wider community members, avoid using possessive language such as ‘our.’
References such as ‘our First Nations students’ or ‘our First Nations community’ risk implying ownership over people, and do not recognise the self-governance and self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities. Such references can be reframed to ‘First Nations students within our school community’ or ‘the local First Nations community’.
Reference to Country/place according to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives is best described as relationships with rather than ownership of/over. For example ‘we acknowledge Kaurna people’s connection to this Land’ or ‘we acknowledge the Kaurna People as Traditional Custodians of this Land’.
Avoiding deficit and dichotomous language
Reconciliation involves acknowledging and addressing the injustices and inequities Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have faced since colonisation. These may be historical, inter-generational and/or continuing.
However, it is also important to:
- acknowledge the strength and resilience Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and communities show in the face of discrimination
- celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions in shaping a shared sense of national unity and identity.
Draw on empowering, strengths-based language, and do not use patronising or paternalistic speech.
For example, look at the difference between:
- deficit language: ‘helping disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’
- strengths-based language: ‘providing meaningful opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to achieve their full potential’
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures have survived across the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years. They are not ‘in need’ of being ‘rescued’ or ‘saved.’
Reconciliation is about working collaboratively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, not doing things 'for them' or 'to them'.
Avoid ‘us’ and ‘them’ language when describing reconciliation goals and processes. Instead, promote and build respectful two-way relationships.
CLOSING THE GAP
When referencing ‘closing the gap’, add context to distinguish between the Closing the Gap strategy; the Close the Gap campaign; and fostering equality and equity more generally.
Closing the Gap is a government strategy towards addressing national socio-economic targets across areas that have an impact on life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In education, Closing the Gap can be contextualised by referencing one or more of the following targets, while recognising their interrelationship to all other targets:
• Targets 3 – Children are engaged in high quality, culturally appropriate early childhood education in their early years
• Target 4 – Children thrive in their early years
• Target 5 – Students achieve their full learning potential
• Target 6 – Students reach their full potential through further education pathways
Close the Gap is a campaign that aims to reduce the health and life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation. When referencing the Close the Gap campaign clarify the ways and reasons for support.
‘Equality and Equity’ is one of the five dimensions of reconciliation in Australia and can be referenced when describing actions and aspirations towards addressing colonial injustices reducing relative disadvantage more generally. Consider strengths-based statements and language.
For example, look at the difference between:
• Our school will close the education gap between First Nations and non-Indigenous students (more deficit discourse)
• Our school is committed to fostering equal and equitable education opportunities and outcomes (more strengths-based language)
Recognising currency and continuity
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are connected to the oldest continuing cultures on the planet.
Recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are alive today – don’t use the past tense alone.
In last century’s educational texts, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were often placed in the ancient past.
These static representations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and contributions don’t honour their continuing presence and significance.
These representations ignore the tens of thousands of years of active Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions and connections to Country before colonisation – perpetuating the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ (‘land belonging to no one’).
European colonisation is very recent compared to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ presence on, and connection with, Country. The reconciliation movement is even more recent.
Consider this when you acknowledge and address the ongoing impacts of Australia’s shared histories since colonisation.
For further support, engage with:
- the Reconciliation in Education: Walking the Talk on-demand webinar and accompanying professional learning resource.
- the key messages for reconciliation in education.
If your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community advises any preferred terms are different from the recommendations, please contact us before submitting your RAP.