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Advanced support: The dos and don'ts of an Aboriginal ally

Aboriginal people call for non-Aboriginal people to do the "heavy lifting" and be an ally to their cause. But how can you be that? What are the pitfalls?

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When I read through a Twitter feed during Reconciliation Week I noticed one that called for non-Aboriginal people to do the "heavy lifting" for Aboriginal people. The discussion centred around the small percentage Aboriginal people make up of the general population, and how they needed those numbers to work for them.

Many non-Aboriginal people are genuinely interested and ready to support Aboriginal people and their challenges. If that is you, you probably ask yourself: What can I do? How can I support Aboriginal people? And where can I get it wrong?

Ally or accomplice?

Commonly, an ally is someone who supports, empowers or stands up for another (usually marginalised) person or group of people. With their actions, allies help change attitudes, behaviours, policies and practices that impact the marginalised person or group.

Many people of colour, in Australia and elsewhere in the world, have their own definition and sometimes distinguish between an ally to their cause and an accomplice. Which of the two roles you assume depends on your risk appetite.

Allies

"Allies ... offer support from the back and the side," says Mikki Kendall, a black blogger and activist from Chicago, USA, and author of Hood Feminism. While the black person is "taking the risk" the ally supports from behind the scenes. This is fairly safe for the ally, and they can easily oscillate between being involved or not.

Accomplices

As an accomplice you also support "when the head busting starts", as Mikki puts it. For her this means that you "stand and use your privilege as a shield for people you claim to support". This position is far more involved and you'll expose yourself to attention and criticism.

Accomplices, for example, argue for keeping support services open, better welfare payments or more support for marginalised communities. They might speak up to friends or at work when they witness someone discriminating against, or overlooking for promotion, people of colour. Accomplices show up to a protests and stand between the police and the people who march.

Whatever your choice, the key is to use your position, or privilege, to help the cause.

For the remainder of this article, I'll focus on the ally.

Stages of support

Know that there isn’t one way to be an ally – every situation, every community and every person is different. The relationships you build might need a unique approach. Pick what resonates with you and operate in the niche that fits your talent, skills, resources and time.

I believe there are three stages of support. Let's call them junior, experienced and senior, to keep the labels neutral.

Being a junior ally

Like in other areas of real life, being a junior means more learning than doing. This is so you don't create a mess. As a junior in any business you need to first know about the theory, rules, team culture, hierarchy and clients before you can be unleashed. Nobody wants a junior to fly their plane or fit a dental crown.

Similarly, when you support Aboriginal people as a junior ally, you need to first learn a lot. Start with Aboriginal history, and I mean the real history, beyond most textbooks, beyond the non-Aboriginal perspective. Learn about the losses in all areas of Aboriginal life: the land, the customs, the sacred places, the languages, the children, the families, the dignity, the wages, the trust, the identity. Then you might follow current topics by watching NITV or read the Aboriginal section of The Guardian Australia newspaper.

Learn the many acronyms and terms used in conversations. Find out about the traditional custodians of the area where you live or work.

Be curious and ask. Don't let the fear of offending or saying the wrong thing prevent you from engaging at all. Most of the people you want to support are happy to explain.

Become aware of your own prior beliefs, maybe even your unconscious bias that you hold (we all have it). At some point you need to ask yourself why you want to become an ally. Are you sure it's for the right reasons or do you – be honest – love standing in the limelight and padding the shoulders of your ego?

If that seems a lot, it is. What you know from school often barely scratched the surface. The more you learn about Aboriginal culture the angrier you might get, thinking "Why wasn't I told? Why has this been kept from me?"

Read books of Aboriginal authors, watch movies directed by Aboriginal people, examine the lyrics of Aboriginal singers and read Aboriginal poetry. This helps you slip into their shoes and get their perspective. Too often Australian literature and art talks about Aboriginal culture from a non-Aboriginal perspective, and the older the piece is the more colonial superiority makes it taste bitter today.

Learn not to speak for Aboriginal people – too many made that mistake before – but let them formulate requests and solutions that they know support their communities best. Realise that listening is much more important than speaking. If you can master just this one skill, you are way ahead of many Australian politicians.

As your knowledge expands you'll start noticing that there are appropriate words and words you'd better not use. This is the first step towards doing: Using words most Aboriginal people are happy with, and realising that it's wiser to ask how they want to be addressed than using 'Uncle' or 'Aunty' straight away.

The second realisation will be that Aboriginal culture is vastly diverse. It's like pasting an Aboriginal version of Europe into Australia: different languages all over the country, cultures that are adapted to hot or cooler climate, to salt or fresh water, to coast or inland, plains or forests. It might feel as if you are suddenly tasting the deep layers of flavour in a Masterchef dish whereas before you only ever had fast food.

As you learn more, you start transitioning into the next stage of an Aboriginal supporter. There is no hard and fast boundary, no graduation. You'll start doing more because you'll be more confident in assessing what is right and what might not be appropriate or respectful.

Junior pitfalls

  • Avoid sharing your support on social media. While it might be tempting to do so, social media can be a harsh and judgemental place that burns you – especially if you have a profile already. Celebrity Pip Edwards learned this the hard way after posting an image with the Aboriginal flag upside down, and a text about "celebrating the land" rather than acknowledging Country.

Being an experienced ally

As an experienced ally you know about the dark chapters of Australian history since invasion, and you're not shy to use that word. You know enough about pre-contact to understand what Aboriginal people lost. Importantly, you know much more about contemporary Aboriginal life to understand their present challenges, because after all, that is where you want to bring in your energy and resources.

Start attending Aboriginal events, organised by Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal folks. You realise that it is vital to listen to, and amplify, Aboriginal voices. Support with your interest and with your presence. Ask questions during Q&As and are not shy to show your lack of knowledge because you know that a) you will never know enough and b) showing interest is a genuine step towards connecting with Aboriginal people. As you are reading about Aboriginal culture it's worth checking "Who is talking?" to ensure that the voice is Aboriginal.

At this stage you might buy Aboriginal products, paintings, traditional or contemporary art works, films, books or music. You know that you need to watch out for genuine art and avoid pieces produced en masse overseas. Maybe you even subscribe to, or support, an Aboriginal-owned news service, e.g. the Koori Mail or an Aboriginal website.

Think about what you can do at your workplace, home, school or community to encourage others become aware of Aboriginal culture and the history of the area they live in and work. Suggest adding an Acknowledgement of Country, doing a competency course, finding ways to engage the kids or paying Aboriginal people fairly for any services they yield.

You are now okay with not being part of a discussion as you've learnt that some things need to be talked about in an Aboriginal-only circle. Besides men's and women's business there is also Aboriginal business. And you are cool with whatever decisions come out of that discussion, even if it means that the next step must exclude a non-Aboriginal audience.

Experienced allies know to always seek consent and permission. Seek permission before you join community events, particularly if they centre around culture or spirituality.

You notice that in your support work it would be good to have an Aboriginal partner helping you out, someone you could go to when you have questions or need to check that a piece is culturally appropriate. You likely realise that it is very hard to find such a person.

As you transition towards a more senior ally you realise that the cosy huddles of the converted don't cut it anymore. After a webinar or discussion group, where all agree that "something has to be done" or how outrageous an issue is, you realise that no-one asks what exactly should be done about it. You realise that comfort is like mud on your shoes: it slows you down. You need to get uncomfortable to get to the next level.

Being a senior ally

Seniors, as in real life, balance the burden of responsibility with the elation of experience. As you grow into becoming a serious Aboriginal supporter you realise that, even if you have the best intentions, some see you as a respected ally while others might consider you a disgraced appropriator.

If you are in the field of teaching you need even more skills, those of a tightrope walker, balancing your words carefully, and balancing your business even more carefully. If you are making money with your ally activities it is vital to give back to Aboriginal communities or organisations or, even better, have Aboriginal staff run it for you.

You know that social media can be like an unburnt Australian bush: Drop the wrong post and it ignites like a Black Saturday hellfire. If you're lucky the damage is confined, if you're not, it might take much longer for you to recover. Now you can learn from Aboriginal peoples' resilience. And you also realise that you might get it wrong sometimes. That post you published, comment you made, request you sent, support you offered – something might have been off, someone got offended. As a senior you know that rather defend your being an ally you just apologise and respond to the matter and not the mate. Being wrong is also a good opportunity to verify if you are able to take an Aboriginal perspective. Maybe that sentence can we reworded, other terms used instead?

"Listening to critics doesn't mean you have to give in to their demands," knows author Sami Shah. "But it does prove a willingness to give those criticisms space to be voiced, for without that how will [you] know how to grow and which directions to grow in?"

You realise that Australia has a long history of pushing Aboriginal matters and people to the side and deciding what is best for them and their communities, many times without consultation, and that a lot of hurt and suspicion stems from that. Some Aboriginal people are trapped in that pain and not open for dialogue, even if they are academics.

You still think it is hard to find an Aboriginal advisor but it doesn't deter you from asking around. Others have found them, you might as well. And if you're in a business you go and search for Aboriginal employees.

It is at this stage that you transition from standing by to standing up.

Senior allies know that they shouldn't just stand by Aboriginal people when things are easy. Instead of clicking a button to sign a petition they might write a personal email to a politician. Instead of doing an Acknowledgement of Country they might have to call out a racist joke, stereotypical remark or dismissive comment. That needs courage, knowledge and self-confidence, especially when someone asks you, "why?".

You can educate others now and teach them what you have learned. Be a multiplier, a spreader of knowledge. This is very important because you can now help other juniors progress faster. Stereotypes are a huge area that needs much work in all levels of society and business. Get a business card that reads "Senior Stereotype Detonator".

You are now supporting in many ways. One is regular donations to a selection of Aboriginal-owned or run organisations. Another is volunteering your time and skills.

You convince your employer to source goods from Aboriginal suppliers. That might just as well become an item in your employer's Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), as you might become a member in your employer's RAP action group.

Most importantly, non-Aboriginal seniors realise that their position is one of privilege, especially if their skin colour is fair. Less or no racism, anxiety on public transport, likelihood of police interaction, discrimination, less history of family trauma, poor health – less struggle. Seniors know how to creatively use their privilege to boost their Aboriginal support.

If creators are scared of creating because they don't want to become victims of a hashtag, then they aren't committed to their idea in the first place.

— Sami Shah, comedian, author and journalist

Tips that help you be a better ally

No matter where you are on your journey as an Aboriginal ally, here are some tips and resources that help you be the best ally you can be.

Be aware of your unconscious bias

Unconscious bias (or implicit association) refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our views, our actions, and our decision-making ability without us being aware of them. They create bias towards certain solutions and actions, which is unconscious.

A large study by the Australian National University found applicants with Chinese, Middle Eastern and Aboriginal sounding names were far less likely to get called for an interview. This might in part be explained with unconscious bias – we prefer to hire people whose names match those we are familiar with (called affinity bias).

Unconscious bias is automatic and affects how we think day to day. Everyone is biased, and even though the word 'bias' can make you feel as if you have to defend yourself or your actions, there is strength in admitting your bias as it shows that you have thought about it and are aware of it.

The Harvard University offers a free online bias test for various areas. Select 'Aboriginal' if you want to see where you are at right now.

Know and use your privilege

Our societies are like fabrics made of different materials. Some feel strong, others fragile. As allies it's important to know where you are within the society you belong to.

Allies are often in a more privileged group or position than the people they support. Let's assume an ally who supports Aboriginal people is a white male. As such he might not think about race at all, may not know some of the daily struggles of Aboriginal people, or perceive his position within society as privileged.

But privileged he is – it is very unlikely that others associate his whiteness with negative stereotypes, that he is discriminated because of his skin colour or exposed to micro-aggressions (see below). You might hear the term "dominant culture" or "dominant group" to describe the majority or privileged group.

As allies we need to be aware of our position of privilege and not assume that the groups we support share how we experience the world. For example, when you shop in the supermarket, you focus on what's on your shopping list. But Aboriginal people often also are acutely aware that security or shop staff observe or follow them because they believe all Aboriginal people steal.

With that awareness you can leverage your privilege for our ally work. Use your position of influence positively.

Avoid micro-aggressions

John approaches Jane whose skin has a darker complexion. They chit-chat a bit, then John asks: "And where are you from?" "I'm from Sydney," replies Jane. "No, I mean where are you from?" insists John. "I'm from Blacktown. It's a suburb of Sydney." "No, I mean where are you really from, like, are you Aboriginal, and which nation?"

But Jane does not identify as Aboriginal. She has a Brazilian father, but sees herself as Australian. The insistent questions seem innocent, but John reminds Jane that because of her heritage she is seen as an outsider. This is a micro-aggression (this particular one is called 'Alien in your own land').

Similarly, if you are asking someone for a nickname or Anglican name because their name is difficult to pronounce, this is a micro-aggression. Or if you expect an Asian person to be good with numbers.

One such remark might not do much, but many people who receive them do so continuously and this can harm them quite a lot.

Prepare for a culturally sensitive & inclusive conversation

It's hard to talk about issues of race because nobody prepared us and we tend to mirror what others do and not touch the subject.

The Black Lives Matter movement which intensified worldwide in 2020 made it clear that we can no longer shy away from such conversations and need to find out how we can have them. Talking with someone who is affected by issues of race can not only help them, but also be an opportunity for you to learn first-hand about it. It is a valuable opportunity for story telling and deep listening.

Some thoughts that might help you include:

  • Practice to understand yourself and others. Where do your beliefs come from? And why do others believe something different? Do you find judgement in your views about others? In other words, have an open mind for your own and a different view.
  • Check if you are ready for conversations. Discussions which can include polarising views go much better if you understand the differences in world views. Be prepared to get uncomfortable and have the courage to sit with it, for example when discussing cultural sensitive topics or conventions that differ from yours.
  • Prepare for the conversation. Consider who you will be talking to, potential topics, when and where you talk, and why you're having the conversation. This is a good opportunity to also check your unconscious bias: Am I after benefits just for myself?
  • Set some ground rules.Boundaries and ground rules help control the conversation. At a minimum, agree to avoid stereotypes and acknowledge triggers (e.g. when you are feeling overwhelmed or too uncomfortable) so you can move on or end the conversation.
  • Find common ground. During the conversation pay attention to what you agree on. What are your shared perspectives? This helps both of you find connections.
  • Find differences. Explore where your perspectives diverge. Where do these different views come from? It's an opportunity to more deeply understand culture.
  • Build bridges. As you discuss your different views try to find ways to build bridges between them. This can be through empathy, understanding, acknowledgement. None of these force either of you to give up your own views.

Inclusive conversations get easier as you know more about other cultures. There are many ways for you to explore them.

Intent vs impact

In conversations about culturally sensitive topics it is very important to separate intent from impact.

For example, if John made a comment that Mary finds offensive, John's friends might excuse it by reassuring Mary that he's "a nice guy" and "didn't mean it that way". They focus on John's intent. While that is a common response, it doesn't help having productive conversations because we miss the opportunity to understand the impact of the words on the other person (especially if they come from a different cultural background).

When we focus on impact we acknowledge that Mary might be hurt by what John said. Her pain is emotional or psychological rather than physical. React as if you had spilt a hot cup of coffee – apologise, ask what you can do to make them feel better.

And own your mistake. It is a great opportunity to ask the other person about the background of their reaction and learn more about their culture once the dust has settled.

Don't treat people like you want to be treated

If you treat others like you want to be treated you assume that they want to be treated like you. You assume everyone is similar. But is that always the case?

If you are a manager and a Christian, for example, you like to reduce the workload of your team over Christmas so everyone can take time off and spend it with their family. But what about people who believe differently or not at all?

While a lot of Aboriginal people identify as Christians, not all of them do. Non-Christians might actually want to work more over Christmas so they can take time off on different days that are important to them.

Instead of treating others like you want to be treated, treat them like they want to be treated. This requires that you know a little about their culture and preferences. It will improve how you communicate and interact with them.

Walk your talk

It took me to read a harsh comment about this website on social media to realise that I hadn't implemented a vital part of being an ally – giving back to community. That was such an obvious omission that I immediately added a donation program.

Sometimes we might get caught up in talking the talk or helping others. But it's important to also implement ourselves what we want others do.

I compiled a long list of ways to support, but here are a few key actions you can do:

  • Give back. Donate regularly to Aboriginal organisations and charities. Choose those that align with your own priorities and world views.
  • Learn, learn, learn. Keep up-to-date with what's happening by reading Aboriginal news (e.g. Koori Mail).
  • Support creators. Combine having fun with supporting artists by visiting events or buying music and movies made by Aboriginal creators.

"Am I appropriating culture?"

As you delve deep into Aboriginal culture and topics you might ask yourself if that's the right thing to do or if there is a limit to how deep you can go. Aren't you appropriating culture at some point? Aboriginal allies have been flamed, abused and cancelled on social media by (often a vocal minority of) Aboriginal people who believed they had gone too far.

Dr Sarah Keith, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University, recommends to ask yourself some key questions when you are engaging with a culture that's not yours:

  • Why am I the person who brings this to the mainstream?
  • Am I going to perpetuate stereotypes that will be hurtful or harmful to a community?
  • Am I participating in this community or am I just using this culture for my own personal gain?
Tip

Evolve Communities offers a series of short videos that answer many questions around becoming, or being, an ally.

References

View article sources (9)

[1] 'White women have had it easy compared with their black sisters', SMH 7/8/2020
[2] Some Aboriginal people have defined their own labels for types of allies. I find that by using neural names it is less likely that a future feels put off, stereotyped, judged, or might decide not to go ahead with their decision to support.
[3] As with all diverse groups, some Aboriginal people might not be prepared to help you. Best to leave those people alone and remember that they might be overcome by the pain and anger of their experiences.
[4] 'Edwards’ Australia Day backlash', SMH 30/1/2021
[5] [5a] 'Arguing over the arts is sort of the point', SMH 11/7/2020
[6] 'Job hunt success is all in a name', Australian National University 4/4/2013, available at crawford.anu.edu.au/news-events/news/104/job-hunt-success-all-name
[7] Based on the book 'We Can't Talk About That At Work!' by Mary-Frances Winters
[8] Inspired by 'The Platinum Rule' by Daisy Lovelace.
[9] 'When appreciation turns appropriation', SMH 6/9/2020

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Advanced support: The dos and don'ts of an Aboriginal ally, <https://stage.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/advanced-support-the-dos-and-donts-of-an-aboriginal-ally>, retrieved 6 December 2022

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

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