With every political and social commentator throwing in their two cents on the Adam Goodes affair, it only seemed a matter of time before a linguist finally jumped on the bandwagon to discuss the impact of word choice when discussing Indigenous affairs.
I am writing this after an illustrative sequence of events over the past week. Starting with a rather startling personal experience I had with a man in a Darwin hostel, then a Four Corners report on mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, and finally an episode of South Park, this week has been an education in how many white people use patronising language to discuss Indigenous affairs.
I could see by the uncertain look in the French woman’s eyes at the hostel that she was having difficulty understanding the Broad Australian English flowing freely from the man’s mouth. The man, in his mid 40s was a stereotypical Australian bloke really: shorts, singlet, thongs, a twinkle in his eye, and a wide smile painted on sun-damaged skin. When the conversation turned to my work with an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, he was quick to point out that that’s where the “real Aborigines” were – not like “those bum ones in Redfern”.
Real Aborigines? Is this how many Australians view Indigenous Australians? As long as the belief prevails that there are somehow ‘real’ Aborigines and, what – fake? pretend? – ones, equality in this country will not be possible. Employing terms such as real or fake when discussing identities reveals an underlying ideology that there are expectations about how we want Aboriginal people to behave and look. Anything outside of this box that we have carved for them is considered ungrateful, inauthentic, and even aggressive, as the Goodes episode demonstrates.
Andrew Forrest and Fortescue Mining:
The next day as I watched ‘Iron Man’ on Four Corners (27 July 2015), I came across another example of this phenomenon. The focus was on Fortescue mining; however, what caught my attention most was the language used by the CEO of Fortescue when discussing Indigenous Australians.
Forrest’s principle is to provide mining jobs to the Yindjibarndi, on whose land he operates his lucrative business, and not “mining welfare”. This view demonstrates the condescension of white mentality in two respects. The first is Forrest’s use of the term mining welfare, rather than royalties– the latter implying that the Indigenous communities have earned the money! Calling legitimate payment for land lease welfare is disingenuous. A transaction has taken place between Fortescue and the Yindjibarndi and it is both disrespectful and disempowering to Indigenous communities to insinuate that a contract to lease their land is somehow doing them a favour.
South Park and Adam Goodes
What can South Park, that gleefully un-PC show, possibly teach us about the language we use on Aboriginal issues? In ‘With Apologies to Jesse Jackson’ (Episode 1, Season 11), Stan struggles to make amends with an African-American friend, Token, after Stan’s father says the N-word on national television. Stan’s repeated attempts to explain that his father isn’t racist and that his father’s subsequent apology makes everything OK do not appease Token. Token is at pains to explain that Stan will never understand his hurt and anger from the safe position of dominant, white, middle-class culture. South Park hits the nail on the head when Stan has an epiphany and finally ‘gets it’ – that he’ll never ‘get it’, never get what it’s like to be an African American.
Which finally brings me to Adam Goodes. While almost everything to be said about this affair has already been said , it’s clear that most of those refuting the racial basis of abuse targeted at Goodes are speaking from the comfort of their privileged, white, suburban lifestyles. Let’s face it, white Australia, we don’t get it. We never will ‘get it’. We white Australians can never truly understand Goodes’ experience (or that of any other Indigenous Australian). But in knowing and acknowledging this fact, we can still make Australia a better place. We can do this by listening to their experiences with compassion and respect and learning to celebrate expressions of our various Indigenous cultures, rather than fearing them. Word choice when discussing Aboriginal affairs dramatically impacts on the experiences of First Australians and on how they are perceived. We need to stop with the patronising language and to stop telling the Indigenous community how to behave in their own house.
Alexandra Marley is a PhD student on the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity laureate project at ANU