Think Twice Before Asking First Nations People These Questions At Work

first nations
Contributor: Aiesha Saunders

We spend a majority of our time at our workplaces, which can be an unsafe place for many people, but in particular for First Nations peoples.

Based on a LinkedIn survey, 27% of workers have personally experienced culturally insensitive behaviour in the workplace, which in my mind could range from micro-aggressions to lack of understanding and worst of all, straight-up to-your-face, no BS about it, racism.

This can sometimes be triggered by a First Nations person’s skin colour. Over a quarter of people surveyed by LinkedIn have experienced discrimination based on their skin colour and three out of five of those people were First Nations.

This is the brutal reality of systemic racism within the workplace. Because of our dystopian need to work to live, this means there is no option for First Nations peoples to remove themselves from these toxic situations, but it also shouldn’t be an expectation that First Nations peoples educate others and spend their time trying to undo systems that have been enforced for hundreds of years. The responsibility of addressing and making changes to systemic racism in the workplace should be on the workplace and the non-Indigenous peoples within it. 

Systemic racism in the workplace is a HUGE issue, and it is something we all (well, hopefully all of us) have been working towards eradicating. Here are a few examples of what not to say to get you going on your anti-racist journey, which will (fingers crossed) get us one step closer to living our best lives, sipping good coffee and dancing to Lizzo on our clock app.

“Would you be able to do a Welcome to Country for our event next week?”

It is a hard no for me. 

Firstly, let’s learn about the difference between Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country. 

Welcome to Country can only be done by an elder who is from that Country. You can’t request any First Nations person to do a Welcome, and although it may be well intentioned, it is not the responsibility of First Nations employees to perform cultural practices if it is outside their job description. Many First Nations groups can be approached to do a Welcome to Country for corporate events. The responsibility of organising this should be on the company and not on the First Nations employees within the business. 

Acknowledgment of Country, on the other hand, can be done by ANYONE. That’s right… you can do an Acknowledgement of Country! The practice of Acknowledging Country is something that can be personalised to the individual doing the Acknowledgment. The purpose of an Acknowledgment is to pay respects to the Country you are on, the First Nations peoples and ancestors that have cared for that Country and Acknowledging that you are able to live and work on this Country, thanks to the traditional custodians who have nurtured it for thousands of years. 

Based on a survey completed by LinkedIn, one in five workplaces have never taken part in an Acknowledgment to Country and 8% don’t even know what an Acknowledgment of Country is or how to do one. Now that we know that anyone can pay their respects and Acknowledge Country, there should be nothing stopping you from giving a well-deserved shoutout to our ancestors and the beautiful First Nations Country you are working on, before your next Zoom meeting or event.

“What is the appropriate word to use… is it First Nations, Indigenous or Aboriginal?”

There is this really cool thing, you’ve probably heard of it before – it’s called communicating. Seriously, that’s the secret sauce to finding out information and unlearning racism. Just ask… but remember that we can only speak for ourselves, as individuals. First Nations peoples don’t have magic powers (despite what some Tourism Australia ads show) that clue us into what every other First Nations person is thinking. 

Some people prefer Indigenous, some people prefer Aboriginal, some people prefer First Nations, some people prefer to be identified by their language group and some people just don’t care. But it’s important to ask the individual their personal preference. When it comes to referring to us as a collective, it is up to the workplace to put in the time, money and energy into community consultation to find out the best term to use that aligns with the business, brand and community it is trying to appropriately represent. 

I personally prefer First Nations or my language group, which is Birpi. But, remember, I am one of many peoples who have my own opinion formed from my personal lived experiences. 

“I have a friend, of a friend, of a friend, who is First Nations… do you know them?”

I am sorry, Dorris from HR, but I don’t know your father-in-law’s footy friend’s cousin who is First Nations. 

As semi-functioning, caffeine-dependent humans in the workplace, it is easy to want to connect and relate to your work peers, to create a good rapport and a fun working environment. But, there is a number of ways you can connect with First Nations peoples in the workplace beyond our culture and your proximity to it. Try building a rapport with some of these questions instead:

  • “Did you catch that episode of Big Brother last night? I can’t believe how the nominations played out!”
  • “What is your favourite cheese?”
  • “Have you seen that video of Amber Heard and James Franco???”

NOTE: Just like how you are not an expert on everything First Nations, First Nations peoples are also not an expert on everything First Nations… because our culture survived an attempted genocide. We’re still here, we’re still thriving and we’re revitalising our culture one day at a time. 

Head to LinkedIn’s hub to keep educating yourself on the ongoing conversation we need to have before, during and after Reconciliation Week. 

Aiesha Saunders is a Biripi woman from mid-North Coast NSW but was born and raised in Sydney on Gadigal Country. Head here to read more about the writer of this article.