If an alien rocked up to you today and demanded, “Take me to your leader,” who would you take them to?
The Prime Minister, right? Regardless of your political leanings, most people would understand that to be the right answer to that question.
How about if that alien asked ‘Take me to your Aboriginal leader?”
You might have Elders in your own community you feel confident to put forward, but you would understand that they are not the leaders of all Aboriginal peoples, just within your own family or community. If you get most of your information from the news websites though, you might find a far wider list of people than you would think. You would even find my name listed once or twice.
I often wonder why someone like me, who has a couple of actual job titles, gets referred to as an activist or a leader, or both in articles, like the one mentioned above? I often used to say that the difference between an ‘Aboriginal advocate’ or an ‘Aboriginal activist’ in real life is whether you got paid or not, but in media it is often about whether they are trying to make you seem like a 'troublemaker' or not. Sometimes both are used more respectfully, but they carry such a huge amount of stigma in media circles that it is hard not to ponder whenever you see it.
‘Aboriginal leader’ on the other hand, is a term that I don’t think needs to exist in any media context. It oversimplifies the complexity of contemporary Indigenous societies, the diversity of our communities and organisations, and the fact that ‘Aboriginal’ is a generic term used to refer to hundreds of different groups. Even though the term itself could be used to describe anyone who is Aboriginal and is also in a leadership role, it instead creates a sense that we are a single group with identifiable leaders who are able to speak on all of our behalves.
Too many non-Aboriginal Australians do not understand these complexities and using generic terms like ‘Aboriginal leader’ only acts to reinforce this misguided simplicity and create a sense that we are a homogenous group with leaders who can speak on all of our behalf. We see this belief in a homogenous collective played out all the time. We see it whenever someone randomly asks us, ‘Why do all you people [insert racist stereotype here]?”. We see it when some racist store owner puts up a sign saying that no Aboriginal people are allowed in until someone returns something that they blindly assume an Aboriginal person stole. We see it whenever someone refuses to have an informed opinion on a given subject affecting Aboriginal people and instead defers to the homogenous collective, ‘I’ll support whatever Aboriginal people say they want.” This not only allows them to avoid having to actually examine and issue, hear all sides, and come to their own conclusion but it allows to appear culturally sensitive at the same time.
At its worst it is literally dehumanising, reducing us to perceived universal truths that can be applied to the entire group – fish swim, frogs hop, Aboriginal people [insert other racist stereotype here]. It doesn’t even matter if the thing believed to be a positive or a negative, it is still misguided and harmful when applied to all Aboriginal people, whether it be that we are all ‘very spiritual’ or we are ‘all drunks’. Both statements reinforce the idea that we are a homogenous group that does not have the same level of diversity and conflict of views and lifestyles that exist within other groups.
When people in media use the phrase ‘Aboriginal leader’ it reinforces this homogenous view, and effectively allows any given journalist, editor, or organisation to decide for their readers who is an ‘Aboriginal leader’. This is not only unfair to individual Aboriginal groups or collectives, who have the right to decide for themselves who they want to speak on their behalf on a given issue, but it is often unfair for the person being described in this way if it is not a way they would ever describe themselves. It is also unfair to the readers, many of whom are trying to better understand a given issue and are being sold short by such simplistic labels.
The criteria used by media to determine who is an ‘Aboriginal leader’ also seem very vague. Sometimes it is someone in government, sometimes it is a prominent writer or speaker, sometimes it is just anyone who says something they agree with. Other times it is someone they do not agree with whatsoever, and the term is then used to undermine Aboriginal voices, arguments and aspirations.
The complexities of Aboriginal societies and viewpoints cannot be so easily simplified, and the only ones who seem to benefit from it are journalists who get to avoid adding nuance to their stories by taking the two minutes required to think of a better way to refer to a given individual. A simple pro-tip though, is to use their job title. If they don’t have one, then there are still a million more accurate ways to describe someone. If they are a leader with appropriate authority within a specific group or community, then refer to that group or community. Or better yet, ask them how they would like to be described, I doubt many people will respond, “Just call me an Aboriginal leader, thanks”.
I am not suggesting that we, as Aboriginal people, should avoid this term so actively though. It is important to have role models for our kids. It is important to acknowledge the strength and leadership of people who fight the good fight, who look for others, who lead a cause, or who leave a path that we ourselves would like to follow. I am not sure if this term, 'Aboriginal leader', is too far gone to reclaim though. It is not the only way to acknowledge someone with leadership skills and qualities, or those who have leadership roles, so maybe we just let it go.
However, I think it is well past time that people in media stop using it, for all of the reasons listed above. Or alternatively, just start referring to any white person who has something to say as a ‘White leader’ and balance the scales a bit. But if that phrase seems awkward, overly simplistic, and impossibly undefinable, then just apply that logic to the phrase ‘Aboriginal leader’ and you will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion.