June 1, 2020
Where do you fit? Tokenistic, ally – or accomplice?
Summer May Finlay on what needs to be done to continue to progress reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.
I have a lot of conversations with non-Indigenous people about how they engage in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander space and most see themselves as allies. Yet some are challenged, and even defensive, if it is suggested that their behaviour is not appropriate.
During National Reconciliation Week (NRW) and other significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander events, many non-Indigenous people come together to acknowledge and celebrate our peoples, cultures and histories.
Yet many of these people are missing in action at other times of the year.
While many offer genuine acknowledgement of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, some reveal their attitudes are little more than tokenism.
Non-Indigenous people often fall into one of three groups: those who are tokenistic, those who are allies, and those who are accomplices in engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.
In my experience, those with a tokenistic attitude are unlikely to read to the end of this article. Allies will read and consider seriously what I am about to write.
The accomplices? Not only will they read this article, but they will join Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and act with us.
NRW is an ideal time for non-Indigenous people to stop and reflect on how real they are about engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.
So, if you are non-Indigenous which category are you? Tokenistic? An ally? Or an accomplice?
Tokenists are those who know, on a superficial level, that they need to be “seen” to be engaged in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues and celebrate our cultures.
They probably attend a NAIDOC event every year, possibly even one they have organised. But that’s where it stops: at being seen.
Tokenists are also likely to have an Aboriginal painting in a prominent location in their office or house.
But when a difficult conversation about Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander issues occurs, members of this group will disappear as quickly as Wile E Coyote.
They tell themselves that they have other things to worry about and this is ultimately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business.
They do, however, pat themselves on the back for their excellent effort on behalf of Indigenous people; and wait for the praise to roll in. If it doesn’t, they are prone to throw up their hands in frustration and ask themselves, “why bother?”.
Tokenists also sometimes talk as if they know it all because they have an Aboriginal friend, or may even be married to someone who is Indigenous.
Does this sound like you?
If you do one or more of these things, I’m sorry to say you are a tokenist.
We really need you to become an accomplice. This will require some deep and probably difficult personal reflection. The first step may be to become an ally.
An ally is more proactive in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander space. Allies promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices above their own.
When someone is blatantly racist, they will say something but may struggle to call out microaggressions and may not even be able to identify them.
They appreciate that Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islander people have been discriminated against and are still marginalised, and allies will therefore promote this issue among their friends and colleagues.
Allies tend to highlight positive stories about the successes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and will post videos of Indigenous people participating in ceremonies: they don’t want to upset their friends or make them feel guilty by sharing negative stuff from the past or inequities occurring today.
But allies may also be ‘late adopters’ when it comes to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters.
Perhaps they aren’t sure where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people stand on issues like the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This is because they are not immersed within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and it also means that allies often don’t recognise their own privileges.
When they hear phrases like “white privilege” or are accused of demonstrating this privilege they can become uncomfortable and even defensive.
Allies mean well and do the right things most of the time.
Ally-ship and is an excellent first step towards supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I have written for NITV on how to be a good ally.
While allies get their hands dirty from time to time, they often aren’t ready to stand with us no matter what.
If this is you, consider how you can take the next step and become an accomplice.
Accomplices are people who stand and act with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Accomplices are prepared to allow Indigenous people to define the issue and the required action.
Unlike allies, who often step away when things get tough, accomplices stay. They are 100 per cent committed to addressing inequities, regardless of the personal or professional cost.
Accomplices don’t try to defend or minimise bad behaviour by non-Indigenous people, whether it is blatant or unconscious racism. They call it out. And of course accomplices always promote the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people rather than their own.
Accomplices are often the people who you don’t see: they are working behind the scenes to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the spotlight. They celebrate our successes rather than worry about their own lack of recognition. They know their boundaries and understand that some spaces are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander domains.
They also know that regardless of how long, or how sustained their involvement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs is, they are always benefiting from dominant culture privilege.
Accomplices never lose sight of their own privilege and are happy to point out to others when their privilege is on show.
Accomplices may not always get it right, but they are always ready to listen and to learn.
We need more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander accomplices.
As just three per cent of the Australian population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need the other 97 per cent of Australians to do the heavy lifting if we are ever to see true reconciliation.
This National Reconciliation Week is a good time to decide where you fit.
And if you are tokenistic, or an ally, ask yourself what are you can do to become an accomplice in supporting the future of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people.
Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman, Lecturer at University of Wollongong, a Research Assistant at the University of Canberra, and a contributing editor at Croakey Health Media.
UOW academics exercise academic freedom by providing expert commentary, opinion and analysis on a range of ongoing social issues and current affairs. This expert commentary reflects the views of those individual academics and does not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the University of Wollongong.