RESOURCE: Best practice arts language

The words we use to describe ourselves, our work and our communities can be personal, political, and can change over time. The arts sector is often at the forefront of this change.

A best practice approach respects and uses the terms that a group or individual uses to describe themselves. This working document lists some of those terms:

DOWNLOAD: Best practice arts language (Kate Larsen) Version 2

  • The use of ‘First Nations’ or ‘First Peoples’ is increasing in Australia, as opposed to the lengthy ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ (which doesn’t reflect the sovereignty of Australia’s First Peoples), ‘Aboriginal’ (which doesn’t reflect the diversity of Australia’s First Peoples, or connect mainland communities to those from the Torres Strait Islands), or ‘Indigenous’ (which is not used specifically in reference to people). ‘First Nations’ or ‘First Peoples’ also connects the Australian experience with that of the First Peoples of other countries.
  • According to the Social Model of Disability, the use of ‘disabled people/person’ (as opposed to ‘people/person with disabilities’) refers to being disabled by social and environmental factors (the ‘what’s wrong with the world?’ / stares or stairs model) as opposed to an individual’s condition or impairment (the ‘what’s wrong with you?’ / Medical Model). We use ‘non-disabled’ rather than ‘able-bodied’ for the same reason. This rights-based language is starting to be seen as the minimum standard for arts and disability practice in Australia (including by funders). Similarly, using the term ‘learning-disabled people/person’ in its Social Model context refers to the barriers faced in the process of learning, as opposed to ‘people with learning disabilities/difficulties’ or ‘intellectually-disabled people’, which focus on the individual or impairment (Medical Model). Read more in my free resource on disability language and models.
  • Arts organisations use a range of terms to refer to Australia’s diverse cultural communities, including ‘multicultural’, ‘Culturally and Linguistically Diverse’ (CALD), people from a ‘non-English speaking background’ (NESB), ‘People of Colour’ (POC), or Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC). The use of ‘diverse’ or ‘multi’ can be both useful and problematic. When applied to individuals or groups, they can imply that there is a static ‘normal’ or point of comparison to be diverse or different from. Be wary of using ‘diverse’ in ways that could mean ‘other’ (usually assumed to be anyone who is not a white-cis-straight-nondisabled-male).
  • “There are lots of letters in LGBTQIA+ for a reason,’ Daniel Santangeli writes in The Relationship is the Project. “Queer community isn’t one group.” The acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Gender Diverse, Queer and Questioning, Intersex and Asexual. The ‘+’ indicates that the community is also inclusive of Allies who don’t personally identify as one of those groups.
  • The term ‘inclusive’ can also be seen as problematic, particularly in terms of initiatives that focus on a particular group or community (supposedly at the exclusion of others). However, inclusion and equality doesn’t always mean treating everyone the same, but rather doing whatever is necessary for someone to have the same opportunities. Merely accommodating access or cultural requirements isn’t enough if someone doesn’t feel invited, welcomed, respected or safe. Pro-active work towards being more inclusive is required to increase representation of marginalised individuals and groups and to reduce or remove current and historical barriers that exclude them from full participation.
  • Community-engaged practice’ is emerging as a contemporary alternative to ‘community arts and cultural development’ and other similar terms. It helps to encapsulate non-artistic as well as artistic outcomes (even if those outcomes are achieved using art as a tool), avoids the negative connotations of ‘community arts’, and provides a distinction from ‘community-led practice’ for organisations that are not majority-led or governed by the communities they represent.
  • Use the words ‘us’, ‘we’ and ‘our’ to refer to the arts organisations that you’re involved with. It helps to reinforce the ownership and obligation of the organisation shared by staff and Board – you do not help the organisation (‘them’ / ‘it’), you are the organisation (‘us’ / ‘we’ / ‘our’).

Don’t panic. It doesn’t matter if you get the words wrong, as long as you make the effort, listen and learn.

DOWNLOAD: Best practice arts language (Kate Larsen) Version 2

Other resources

If your organisation could use some help with its community engagement or communications plans, feel free to get in touch.

Author: katelarsenkeys

Arts, Cultural & Non-Profit Consultant. Reader. Writer (Our Hybrid Future, The Relationship is the Project). Researching the art of arts governance.

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