How to be an ally to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Words by Alice Currie, illustrations by Charlotte Allingham.

Have you ever asked yourself how you can be a respectful and useful ally to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? As an Aboriginal woman and a social butterfly, it's something I'm asked a lot by people who genuinely want to promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices above their own and to stand with us in both good times and bad.

I know there are people out there who want to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and I am all for it, but it must be done respectfully.

More voices are better than one, so the need for allies is important in Australia, where the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population makes up only 3.3 per cent of the population.

Raise up our voices

Aboriginal woman speaking

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we have a voice and want to be the ones that speak it aloud. In my own experience, it has often taken me time to truly open up to my co-workers for fear that I will hurt their feelings, or that they won’t believe me, or that they’ll find it difficult to understand what I mean at first.

Yes, you may have personal experience of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but that doesn’t give you the right to speak for all of us.

Try this out: Support our efforts, encourage us, and only add your voice when asked to do so.

Be respectful and open to learning

Group of young people sitting in a circle

Step back and provide us with a safe space to speak freely for ourselves about the subjects that are affecting our lives, people and community. When you do this, you will start to gain respect from us and you’ll learn a lot more, too.

Head to IndigenousX, a wonderful online platform that shares Indigenous knowledge, opinions and experiences with a wide audience across the world.

Speak up when you hear someone say something inappropriate

Male putting his hand out

Whenever you hear someone say something that reinforces negative racial stereotypes or is dismissive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture, it’s important to speak up.

If you feel uncomfortable voicing your objection to racist comments on your own, share what you heard with your fellow allies and ask them to support you.

Be brave and be bold

As an ally, you will have to be brave. For example: You are at a friend’s house and one of your friends makes an ‘Aboriginal joke’.

  1. Pull them up on the joke. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when it’s a friend, but confronting someone about their racist comment or attitude will show them that you’re a true ally of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and won’t accept that type of behaviour.

  2. In a calm, even manner, ask your friend to explain why they think it’s acceptable to tell that sort of joke. This often gets them to really think about their actions and to reflect on why their behaviour was wrong.

Once you learn to take a stand, that uncomfortable feeling you get will start to go away over time and you’ll become a much stronger ally.

Expand your knowledge about our culture

Girl reading a book titled Real History of this Nation

Google might be all-knowing, but that doesn’t mean it can provide the whole truth. Make time to do some research, to read and to listen. Nothing comes close to sitting down and seeking out the truth in the old-fashioned way of storytelling.

Check out these resources:

  • Reconciliation Australia – helps you and others to learn about the land you live on and its culture and history.

  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies – an institution focused exclusively on the diverse history, cultures and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.

  • 98.9FM for the Best Country – this deadly radio station packs a punch. They play great country music and have shows dedicated to current affairs and issues of importance to Indigenous people. My favourite shows are Let’s Talk! and Deadly Choices Radio. You can listen to the station online or via a streaming app.

  • WellMob – this fantastic website provides over 200 free digital resources, including websites, apps, videos, social media, podcasts, and online counselling and programs.

  • indigiTUBE – if you love YouTube, you’ll love indigiTUBE’s amazing content, which is produced by First Nations people and is all about preserving language and culture for future generations.

  • Alternatively, SBS On Demand and ABC iView have a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander movies and documentaries. I recently watched Freeman (ABC iView). When I was growing up, Cathy Freeman inspired me to be proud of my Aboriginal side and this documentary reinforced that even more.

You may have noticed a theme emerging here: the importance of storytelling. Storytelling is used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures as a way of passing down cultural beliefs and values to the next generation, for them to treasure and then pass down to future generations.

Some of the most important communications and histories have been carried through the use of message sticks, rock and sand art, body painting, song, dance and carvings.

Take care of yourself, too

Woman with her head in her hands

Being an ally can often be a difficult task and it’s okay sometimes to feel tired and overwhelmed. It’s important that you take care of yourself so that you can learn to take care of others.

So, here are some good self-care habits that I believe can help you to be a good ally:

  • Learn and accept that you may not always get it right, and be open to learning.

  • Enjoy the little things in life and treat yourself occasionally.

  • Surround yourself with likeminded, positive people who can help you to grow.

  • Ask for help from family or friends if you need it.

  • Practise mindfulness and being present in the moment.

We are all part of the reconciliation journey together and your help as allies will support the sustainable future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture for future generations to come.

About the author: Alice Currie is a proud Mununjali woman from Yugambeh country located in South East Queensland, who was born and raised in Brisbane, QLD. Alice works as the Communications Consultant at Cox Inall Ridgeway and is passionate about supporting organisations to deliver on a co-design approach when making campaigns for or about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

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