Terminology Guide

A Guide to Using Respectful and Inclusive Language and Terminology

Using respectful and inclusive language and terminology is an essential component of reconciliation and strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians. The ways in which we speak about reconciliation are just as important as the ways in which we act towards it; language is itself active, and can impact on attitudes, understandings and relationships in a very real and active sense.

Acknowledging diversity

Given the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identities across Australia, you should always seek advice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in your local school or early learning service community regarding preferences and protocols around terminology use.

While they are guidelines only, below are some recommendations for using respectful and inclusive language and terminology. Please consider these guidelines, alongside guidance from your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, when preparing written statements such as your Vision for Reconciliation, as well as in everyday communication:

Referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

It is often best practice to use ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ when referring generally to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. ‘Aboriginal’ (and less commonly accepted variants such as ‘Aboriginals’ or ‘Aborigines’) alone is also not inclusive of the diversity of cultures and identities across Australia, for which reason it should be accompanied by ‘peoples’ in the plural. Similarly, as a stand-alone term, ‘Aboriginal’ is not inclusive of Torres Strait Islander peoples, and reference to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be spelt out where necessary. Pluralised reference terms such as ‘First Nations’ or ‘First Peoples’ are also acceptable language, and respectfully encompass the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identities. Correspondingly, pluralisation should extend to generalised reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘histories,’ ‘perspectives,’ ‘ways of being,’ ‘contributions,’ and so forth. In respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities, it is important not to abbreviate ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Torres Strait Islander,’ or to use the acronym ‘ATSI.’ Assimilationist terms such as ‘full-blood,’ ‘half-caste’ and ‘quarter-caste’ are extremely offensive and should never be used when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Furthermore, it is important to recognise that, in some parts of the country, the term ‘Indigenous’ can be considered offensive. That is, it has scientific connotations which have been used historically to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of the ‘flora/fauna’ rather than the human population of Australia, and can be seen as a problematically universalising or homogenising label for what are, in reality, highly diverse identities. An exception for the term ‘Indigenous’ is considered in some situations, for example:

  • If an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person prefers and/or has approved the word ‘Indigenous’ to be used;
  • If an organisation has appropriately referred to a program or job title (e.g. “Indigenous Programs Unit” or “Indigenous Programs Manager”);
  • If the word ‘Indigenous’ has been appropriately embedded into an organisational i.e. Federal Government, State Government and Local Government—policy.
  • If referring to non-Indigenous (non-Aboriginal or non-Torres Strait Islander) Australians. Terms such as ‘other Australians’ or ‘the wider community’ may also be acceptable in this regard.

Capitalisation

As capitalisation demonstrates respect, ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Torres Strait Islander’ should always be capitalised. Capitalisation conventions are often also considered appropriate to extend to terms such as:

- Indigenous;
- First Peoples/Nations/Australian;
- Elders;
- Traditional Owners/Custodians;
- Country (and corresponding terms such as ‘Land,’ when it is used in place of ‘Country’), as well as the names of particular Language Groups or geo-cultural communities;
- Acknowledgement of Country, Welcome to Country, and the names of other cultural practices (particularly if the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander meanings or perspectives behind the words used to describe the practices – such as ‘acknowledge’ or ‘welcome’ – may be distinct to their English definitions or connotations).

Note that it is not necessary to capitalise the term ‘reconciliation,’ unless making reference to the name of Reconciliation Australia as an organisation, or the name of a formal program or document such as your Reconciliation Action Plan.

Avoiding deficit and dichotomous language

Acknowledging and addressing the historical – and often intergenerational – injustices and inequities experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since colonisation is a critical component of reconciliation. Nevertheless, it is simultaneously imperative to acknowledge the strengths and resilience shown by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and communities in the face of discrimination, and to celebrate the continued significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions in shaping a shared sense of national unity and identity.

It is important to draw on empowering, strengths-based language, and to be careful not to perpetuate patronising or paternalistic rhetoric. Consider, for example, the difference between more deficit discourses such as “helping disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,” and a more strengths-based alternative such as “providing meaningful opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to achieve at their full potential.”

Remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures have survived across the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years and, as such, are not ‘in need’ of being ‘rescued’ or ‘saved.’ Reconciliation is about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their strengths, not doing things for them or to them. Correspondingly, reconciliation processes and aspirations should not be described through dichotomous ‘us’ and ‘them’ language, and should instead concentrate on promoting mutually respectful and genuine two-way relationships of shared significance.

Again, please remember that the above is a guide only, and should not replace the advice from your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. If, upon consulting with your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, you find that the preferred terminology is different from the recommendations above, please contact us before submitting your RAP.

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