National Reconciliation Week 2024 invites us to reflect and stand up for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Now more than ever, it is essential for us to respectfully engage with First Nations issues and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s sovereignty and self-determination.

‘Now more than ever’ is a fantastic theme. We need to stand together now, do more in this country, and we cannot do it by ourselves as three per cent of the population. We need everybody to lift their game and do more.

Dr Summer May Finlay

On 27 May, the UTS Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion hosted Tokenist, ally or accomplice?. With a large in-person and online audience, the event featured a range of views and thought-provoking discussions.

Keynote speaker Dr Summer May Finlay, a proud Yorta Yorta woman who grew up on Awabakal country, inspired the audience with a passionate address and offered practical suggestions for how non-Indigenous people can be effective accomplices with and for First Nations people. In 2020, Croakey Health Media published her article, Where do you fit? Tokenistic, ally – or accomplice?, outlining different ways that non-Indigenous people engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. Have a read of the article and take a moment to reflect on which category you might fit into.

If you’re someone who might be tokenistic, how could you engage more meaningfully with First Nations people? It doesn’t have to be too complicated. In her talk, Summer identified simple ways for non-Indigenous people to be more inclusive and genuine with their actions.

Getting the basic things right

Summer pointed out the damaging use of microaggressions, casual expressions that perpetuate racist stereotypes and ideas. Little things that people say and do can have a lasting impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Comments such as “What part Aboriginal are you?” or “You don’t look Aboriginal” may not be intentionally offensive but are deeply hurtful. 

She also emphasised the importance of using the correct terminology when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Small things like remembering to capitalise words when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the names of the Country you are on. 

Knowing the difference between an Acknowledgment of Country and a Welcome to Country is another simple action that was reiterated by Summer. An Acknowledgement of Country isn’t something that should be automatically delegated to one of your First Nations colleagues. Make the acknowledgement a personal thing – we all have a connection to Country whether we are from that particular place or not. 

We should also understand that not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the same. There are different perspectives, experiences and values, so don’t assume that an individual person is the fountain of all knowledge for everything related to First Nations issues.

Dr Summer May Finlay presenting her keynote speech
Dr Summer May Finlay addresses the crowd in the UTS Great Hall

Prioritising Indigenous voices

Summer reminded us of what it means to be a genuine accomplice. Non-Indigenous people should be willing to stand aside and let Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speak for themselves on issues that impact them. Accomplices can recognise their own privilege and are happy to work behind the scenes to allow First Nations people to be heard first.

As accomplices, we must also call out racism when we witness it in any form. There is no excuse for silence when we encounter discrimination.

Next steps

Where do we go from here? It’s important to remember that these challenges should not be addressed alone. Standing in solidarity with First Nations people, through good times and bad, is essential. However, it is equally important to accept when you might not be included in conversations or when First Nations people may disagree with your views. 

“Now more than ever” captures the essence of what is needed in this country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as 3% of the population, cannot do it by themselves. We all need to come together and continue the fight for justice and reconciliation. Celebrating, acknowledging and respecting the 60,000 years of culture in the country that we now know as Australia is something we should always strive for.

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