Naming conventions can be inherently colonial. Whoever gets to decide the names of things has a position of power over the thing they are naming.
By
Nayuka Gorrie

16 Jun 2017 - 3:37 PM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2017 - 3:39 PM

My name is Nayuka. I used to be Natalie. Natalie drank soy flat whites and called herself Natalie so baristas wouldn’t butcher her name. My name is beautiful though. When people are forced to roll their tongues around it, I no longer feel shame. I feel powerful. If I have to say Becky and Brad, you can say Nayuka.

How blackfullas identify or are identified is political. It can tell us a lot about one another. When someone tells me they are a (clan name/language group) person, I think that they have had access to that knowledge, are likely proud of where they come from and are following a protocol. They also want the world to contextualise them. Likewise, if someone says Indigenous Australian, it tells me that they have probably spent a lot of time around settlers and are conditioned to make themselves seem less threatening or see themselves as fitting in with Australians.

Aborigine is one such word. Not quite a kill word but not quite right either. To be honest, I don’t hear it much. The only time I read it is when I happen upon Andrew Bolt’s writing.

Some might say a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. For an upper class Capulet whispering sweet nothings to an upper class Montague, maybe words are just words. Words are weird though. They can heal and they can harm. Some words are killing words, usually intended to maim. Words like “nigger” “coon” and “abo” are rarely used accidentally anymore. If it’s used, it’s used intentionally, whether in context or as a dagger. There are some words however that aren’t the killing words. They are something else words; cringe words.

Aborigine is one such word. Not quite a kill word but not quite right either. To be honest, I don’t hear it much. The only time I read it is when I happen upon Andrew Bolt’s writing. I’m guessing he knows it’s a word we generally don’t like or don’t use. I’m guessing he uses it as a way to be condescending. But it is a cringe word, not a kill word, so we can’t do much about it. To complain would be met with derision about excessive political correctness and censorship. If I’m right, it’s a pretty insidious tactic to keep people in their place.

I don’t know the exact moment it went out of popular lexicon. I’m 26 and by the time I was going through the 12 year practical joke known as the Queensland public education system, it wasn’t used that much. A quick Facebook status asking other people when the last time they heard it was surprising though; some in high school, universities’ course titles still contain the word. Some people didn’t mind it. Some younger people commented that their grandparents used it. Some found the word grating but couldn’t quite articulate why.

For some it reminds them of the old days. Not the halcyon days (although they might be halcyon for some), it reminds them of Western Australia’s Aborigines Protection Act 1906, South Australia's Aborigine’s Act 1911 or Victoria’s Aborigines Act of 1910. Sometimes the good old days remain in memory only;  for example, no one calls us “coloureds” anymore. Chief Protector of Aborigines, A. O Neville’s book was called “Australia's coloured minority : its place in the community.”

There were no aborigines before invasion. This word was imposed on us to classify us.

Who gets to decide the names of things is inherently about power. In this country, what blackfullas have been named has largely, in the black and white lingua franca, national dialogue, policy and media, been decided by white people. This is not unique to us. Native Americans were called Indians because their colonisers thought they were Indians and centuries later they still can’t shake the name.

Munanjali and South Sea Islander woman Dr Chelsea Bond, in her recent keynote speech at the Queensland State Library for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, spoke about how the ‘aborigine’ is a construction. There were no aborigines before invasion. This word was imposed on us to classify us.

We have identities that existed before colonisation, why should they be given up? When were they given up?  

Possibly worse than this classification though is an assimilationist creep in language.  “Our Indigenous people,” “Indigenous Australians,” “Australia’s Indigenous people,” and so on. This language on the surface makes some people feel warm and fuzzy. This language seems to me to be coercive. It can feel like we can only be accepted on the terms of the coloniser and are forced to give up our identity for the sake of getting along. We have identities that existed before colonisation, why should they be given up? When were they given up?

Some people may critique the offense of the word as political correctness gone mad and that by worrying about that it might get in the way of actual progress, as though critiquing language choices and working to dismantle or reform structures are mutually exclusive or can’t be done at the same time. Language however does matter. What we call things does matter. The language we use can determine the frame in which we discuss things. Take sexual assault or family violence for example; a binary has been created for the way in which we talk about it - victim or survivor. Depending on the word we use, we are conjuring up different sets of meanings. If we use victim we see fragile and broken. If we use survivor, we see strength and perseverance. There are many ways to experience these things but we have reduced them to two words.

Ultimately, any language that has been imposed on us will never be able to name us properly. It will always fail.

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