How to ease pressure off mob and share the cultural load

Image of Phoebe McIlwraith smiling and looking off camera. She is wearing a shirt that features the Aboriginal flag.

By Phoebe McIlwraith, a Bundjalung Githabal and Worimi Saltwater dubay/galbaan (woman). Phoebe is a writer, editor and audio producer based in ‘Sydney’.

I always find it a bit funny talking about allyship as an Aboriginal person. I never understood why until I was brought along as a plus-one to a random dinner. Most of my work is around First Nations topics and, inevitably, my identity made some people at the dinner curious. One person asked, ‘So, what is it even like to be Indigenous?’ I replied off-handedly that I honestly have no idea what it’s like not to be Indigenous and that I wasn’t sure how to answer their question.

This drew more questions, and what began as a simple night out became hours of ‘Let's ask Phoebe all our Aboriginal questions.’ I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I rolled with it, but I remember getting in my Uber to go home at the end of the event and feeling completely drained. The next day, I called my mum to vent. She always makes me laugh about these types of things. At one point, I cackled ‘What’s it like to be Indigenous? It feels like I have to answer endless questions’.

Being black feels like I’m always educating

I’m used to answering a lot of questions. When you’re an ethnic minority, it’s something that starts when you’re young. Since around Year 2, I’ve fielded questions from both kids and adults about Aboriginal people, many of which came from racism and ignorance. It happened to me so frequently that, at age 11, I entered (and won) my primary school’s public speaking competition with a speech where I fact-checked racist ideas about Aboriginal people and other ethnic minorities.

Mainly racist questions followed me through high school and early university. In many classes and social groups, I was the only Aboriginal person. I felt like I had to defend my people every time I stepped into a non-First Nations space. While unpacking outright racism has become less frequent, a different type of questioning started happening: well-meaning questions from people who want to ‘understand’ Indigenous peoples, culture, history and politics.

At the dinner, all the questions were by generally well-meaning people. The issue is that I’m having to handle these questions all the time – from work, at uni, on social media, during events, at the gym, and so on.

Honestly, at times I feel like I never get to be "Phoebe" and that I'm always seen as "Phoebe, Permanent Aboriginal Spokesperson and Walking Black Google".

There's a name for this behaviour

There is a term that’s now being used to describe what is happening here: cultural load.

‘Cultural load’ refers to the expectation put on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to share our cultural knowledge, or our lived experience, in order to educate others. This expectation can happen knowingly or unknowingly, but the result is that First Nations people are doing more work than we should.

Normally, the term is used in the context of workplaces, when employers expect cultural labour from mob employees on top of their actual job. But it can also be applied to any type of relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations people.

In social situations, this can look like seeing a First Nations person you know as a point of contact for every Indigenous-related topic, or asking someone questions as soon as you find out they’re Indigenous. Things like this can add a lot of extra pressure on mob and can even contribute to burnout.

Does this sound familiar?

If you’re reading this so far and going, ‘Oh my god, I’ve done that’, please finish the next section before feeling bad. Allyship is a journey and we’ve only very recently begun to have these big conversations in the mainstream around what is ‘good’ allyship. It’s a topic and an idea that is constantly changing in response to the needs of First Nations people.

Good allies aren't necessarily perfect allies. They're people who are trying to do better.

One of the biggest parts of cultural load, at least for me, is feeling like if I don’t say something, then no one will. You can share the load in these conversations by doing little things to ease the pressure and help mob navigate a world filled with demands for our labour.

This isn’t a process of perfection. And you’ll make mistakes. But good allyship is showing up knowing this, learning, and still coming back to do the right thing.

How can I share the load?

1. Ask for and respect boundaries

Something I always appreciate is when friends ask me whether I’m comfortable or even have the time to be asked about something, and why they want to ask me. This gives me the opportunity to say ‘no’ at the first instance, or to consider whether I’m the best person to discuss the topic. When I communicate my boundaries, I then expect them to be respected.

2. Think about the situation

Consider the context you’re in when you’re having these conversations. There’s a big difference when asking about boundaries in a one-on-one conversation, compared to in front of other people. Most of the time people ask me for my commentary or knowledge on First Nations topics in public spaces, like work meetings, classes or social gatherings. This can feel like a lot of pressure, because I don’t want to be seen as rude in front of other people.

3. Learn how to do good research

A reflection I hear from a lot of non-Indigenous people is that they don’t know where to find reliable information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander topics. Some easy questions to consider when trying to learn about First Nations topics are:

  • Who is the author? Are they a First Nations person?

  • Are there references listed?

  • Is the information connected to trusted platforms like NITV or Indigenous X, or is it led by Indigenous teams within institutions such as universities, galleries or museums?

By learning how to do research, you can create a foundation to build on in future conversations.

4. Follow mob voices and respect our diversity

Social and online media has meant people have more access to First Nations-made content than ever before. It’s an opportunity to hear a whole range of histories and perspectives directly from First Nations people. Some of my favourite platforms to follow are:

  • Common Ground First Nations, an educational platform centred on First Nations knowledge from all around the continent.

  • NITV, home to Australia’s only national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander news service and amazing First Nations films/documentaries.

  • Frontier War Stories, a history podcast hosted by Gamilaraay and Kooma man Boe Spearim about the first 100+ years of invasion.

  • Indigenous community radio stations like CAAMA, Triple A Murri Country and Koori Radio create unique content specific to their community, from music selections to interviews about politics.

  • Black content creators exist in all interests like @soju_gang (DJ), @tasmankeith (music), @mollyhunt4food (digital art), @meissamason (beauty/popular culture) and @amythunig (education).

However, while we might all be Indigenous, that doesn’t mean that we all share the same ideas or opinions. Be sure to respect the diversity of our perspectives when engaging in our content or our spaces.

5. Share your learnings with others to help carry the educational load!

Lastly, share your new learnings with friends and family! You liked a documentary? Send a friend the link to stream it. Relatives say they don’t know enough about something? Lend them a book they might find helpful.

Make this something you do regularly. Learning is much more engaging when you have people to talk about it with, and people tend to trust things when recommended by friends and family. You have influence, you have a role in creating change, and I trust deeply that you will do very good things.

What can I do now?

  • Start following mob voices and platforms online to hear a range of First Nations perspectives and histories.