The term ‘urban Aboriginal’

ABC News reports comments by the dean of Indigenous Research and Education at CDU, Prof MaryAnn Bin-Sallik, that descriptions like ‘urban indigenous, traditional indigenous and persons of Aboriginal descent’ are insulting in the extreme. 

ABC reports:

[that Professor Bin-Sallik] says the term ‘urban indigenous’ is racist because it being based on the colour of people’s skin.  She says even Aboriginal people have started identifying with the ‘toxic labels’.  She wants all levels of Australian governments to stop using racist language, and instead describe indigenous Australians as Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders.

I disagree on three grounds (over the fold).


First, merging the plurality of Aboriginal identities into a singular ‘Aboriginal’ description has distorted our discourse.  When people discuss issues in a social context the reference to a singular Aboriginal description diminishes the multitude of sources that create assumptions.  Aboriginality is incredibly diverse.  The very term is a non-Aboriginal construct.  Because our public discourse is influenced by a range of considerations (i.e. the need to be respectful, the need to be upfront and not afraid to speak out) the singular Aboriginal description skews our capacity to have an honest debate.   

What is wrong with the non-Aboriginal person seeking to discuss issues in the context of distinguishing the identities that Aboriginal people share? 

What is wrong with the sentiment of an Aboriginal person with a strong traditional background to consider issues in the context of distinguishing him (or her) self with Aboriginal people who do not have a strong traditional background?

So long as the intent is not ill I feel such distinctions can add significant value.

Second, individuals should be able to exercise choice.  Some may prefer a pluralistic view, others may not.  For me, I am certainly proud of my Aboriginality but if I were to hinge that pride on a singular Aboriginal identity then certain conflicts and contradictions would arise.  I’m comfortable with an ‘urban Aboriginal’ label, as I am with the ‘Aboriginal’ label.  I don’t speak language and I have subtle Aboriginal features.  This doesn’t make me any less Aboriginal but it certainly makes me different to other Aboriginal people.  The scope of this difference is sufficient for me to find value in a pluralistic view.  I am proud of who I am and where I come from. 

I also empathise with the sentiment of others who are not comfortable with the ‘urban Aboriginal’ label.  That is their view.  I can understand their discomfort.        

Third, in the policy sense I feel there is great value in accommodating the pluralism of Aboriginal identity.  I’ve discussed it at length in such topics as the indigenous knowledge economy.  The challenges that confront Aboriginal people are different in their character because of the pluralism of Aboriginality.  Current policy too heavily weighs towards a singular Aboriginal description.  It has failed to accommodate the value of pluralism.  

As to the assertion that using labels such as ‘urban’ and ‘traditional’ is ‘racist’, I strongly feel that by restricting the capacity of choice for individuals we compound the freedom of Aboriginal individuals to express their own identity. 


4 Responses to “The term ‘urban Aboriginal’”

  1. 4 June 2008 at 8:28 am

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your kind comments on our little blog site.

    I find myself agreeing with your piece above. I spent a number of years immersed in the study of the politics of cultural identity (anthropology at my undergrad university in the 1990s carried a heavy focus on the construction of cultural identity).

    I understand the argument the Bin Salik is offering: labels such as ‘urban’ (construed as inauthentic or in other words ‘not a real Aboriginal) and ‘traditional’ (subtext: real and authentic), can be used in public discourse to confer or deny legitimacy.

    However, my own observations of people’s own understanding of their cultural identity concur with yours: identity is socially negotiated, plural and shifting. People will assert different identities depending on the situation and what is being asked of them. For example, Alice Sptings people who are Aboriginal, Central Arrernte, Tyerretye, apmereke-artweye and Mpwarnterenye depending on when and where they’re asked.

    Why is this different to me saying I’m female, Australian, of mixed descent, a Northern Territorian, or an ex-pat NSW-person depending upon who asks? I guess it’s because it’s about -once again- legitimacy and Aboriginality.

    I agree that we should be allowed to express cultural identity in whatever way it’s understood by ourselves and those with whom we identify most closely. I

    Thanks again for the great blog.

  2. 2 Anne
    6 July 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Just curious, the pictures on your blog – the red sand landscape – is that how it looks around Alice Springs? looks completely dusty and lifeless … Mentioning aboriginal traditional life style, how have anyone ever been able to find food in such an area? Sorry if I sound naive, I am not Australian and have hardly been out of Sydney in my time here.

    It is difficult to comprehend that some people live that far from the sea… Alice Springs must be a fascinating and scary place, so desolated…

  3. 2 November 2009 at 8:38 am

    Hi all – thought I’d throw my 2c in. I think it is important to remember that this nation we call Australia is actually a continant made up of many Nations, each made up of distinguished tribes. Each of these nations speak languages as distinct from each other as Spanish to Italian to French to Russian. They also maintain distinct cultural practices and Law, with an underlying foundation of social standards which minimalised violence within and between tribes and other nations.

    The traditional people of this land have been forced to try and describe their cultural layout to an alien culture with no point of reference. The aliens have gone on to misinterpret or misrepresent this structure, for the most part to facilitate outside commercial interests. In the last 20 years the Government has been engaged in the altering of Traditional linguistics and place names, changing names on maps and generally altering the tenure of vast tracts of crown and other lands. When a Traditional Owner goes to court to represent their Nation, they find the words they are using, words spoken from time immemorial, are not registered with the government authorities. Because the court has the wrong information, they fail to recognise the true Traditional Land Owner, and the case is thrown out. A sublime piece of social engineering, don’t you think?

    The bottom line in all this is simple. You are an Original Sovereign Person of this land, or you are not. Everything else is invader construct. If you have lost your attachment to your Traditional Land/ People/ Language/ Law, it was or is by force, not in anyway by choice of you or your people, and in no way removes your status as a true sovereign individual.

    NOTE: (Ab)original = unnatural or abnormal original. Original = Original. When we look at language, it is wise to look deep, as it is the foundation of all we do.

    Cheers to all.

  4. 2 November 2009 at 8:50 am

    By the way Anne – There are around 3500 species of plants in the central “desert” region, and before sheep, cattle, rabbits and foxes, there were vast populations of kangaroos, emu, bandicoot, native rodents, goanna, sleepy lizards etc. etc. These lands are incredibly diverse, and supported many more people in the old times than we can imagine today. Life was good for the people then, so good that the Tribes could devote weeks or even months to celebration or ceremony.

    The idea that the central desert regions are harsh and desolate comes from foreign ideas about habitable land, and do not have the benefit of local insight or knowledge. To a person from the “desert”, a city might seem equally inhospitable – it all depends on what you know.

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