No One Said Aboriginal Allyship Was Easy. But Please Don’t Silence Us.

What's the point of a BLM highlight reel on your Instagram if you delete comments from Indigenous people?
Silencing Aboriginal voices when they give you feedback is problematic.
Silencing Aboriginal voices when they give you feedback is problematic.

This year, the increased traction of the Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement has challenged all facets of society to reflect on and understand their privilege, practices, branding and unconscious bias. An essential part of this process is learning and relearning. This can be an unsettling experience as we are introduced to new information, truths and perspectives.

Whilst learning comes in many forms such as reading, watching, observing and interacting, listening is a fundamental tenet to meaningful education. In particular, listening to the voices of those you are learning about should not to be avoided, no matter how uncomfortable that experience may be.

YouTuber Sarah Stevenson — AKA Sarah’s Day — recently purchased a yidaki (didgeridoo) for her partner, Kurt Tilse, as a Father’s Day gift from their son, Fox.
After he posted about the gift on his Instagram, commenters — including the account I run, Blak Business — asked Tilse questions about where this “gift” had been purchased. Those comments were deleted (screen grabs can be found on my “SD” highlight reel) and the comment functionality was turned off on his post.

Yidaki is a significant cultural symbol for Aboriginal people that originates from the Yolngu of North East Arnhem Land.

You can read more about yidaki from Yolngu elder and lawman Uncle Djalu Gurruwiwi here. I do not have cultural authority to speak about the protocols of yiakdi, and cannot educate you as to whether or not it is OK for a non-Indigenous person to purchase and/or play yidaki.

The call for accountability and transparency is not without warrant. There are non-Indigenous businesses which use Aboriginal culture for their own profit, like the company WAM, which has copyrighted use of the Aboriginal flag, and instances where non-Indigenous businesses have appropriated Aboriginal art for profit. (Take, for example, Birubi Art, which was fined $2.3 million in 2019 for selling fake Aboriginal art.) There are varied opinions about whether non-Indigenous businesses have the right to profit from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultures.

Tilse confirmed that the piece had been purchased from Spirit Gallery, which is a non-Indigenous owned business that sells Aboriginal artwork and yidakis.

There is mixed information on their website as to where they source yidakis. One page says, “Our traditional instruments are sourced from the Buku Larrngay Mulka Aboriginal community art centre and from Gapuwiyak Aboriginal Culture and Arts.” Another page lists seven artists, both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous, with whom they partner.

As I’ve said, I don’t have the authority to speak on the cultural protocols surrounding yidaki, so that’s not my concern.

Rather, I’m concerned about the conscious choice that Tilse and Stevenson made — and have maintained — to silence the voices of the community and culture they’ve said they want to raise their son to appreciate. It is important to note that it was not only Blak Business’ comments that were removed; I received countless messages from other people saying that their comments had also been deleted and their profiles restricted or blocked from Tilse’s account.

In June, Stevenson began sharing content on Instagram in support of Bla(c)k Lives Matter. “I support this movement. I want to do what I can,” she says in a video saved as a highlight on her Instagram profile.

So, if you have a Bla(c)k Lives Matter highlight on your Instagram page but actively choose to silence Aboriginal voices, what are you saying? Do our voices not matter? Why should my voice be removed, restricted and silenced?

To me, silencing Aboriginal voices signals that Tilse and Stevenson are not truly open to hearing from the voices they claim to celebrate. It suggests they want to be seen to be doing the right thing, but are not actually committed to learning about our community. This allyship is a performance and a facade, and whilst it might be enhancing their image, it’s hurting my people.

I appreciate that being an ally is hard. Meaningful allyship requires people to be open to having tough conversations, to reflect on their own ideologies and to acknowledge that there is a difference between intent and impact.

Olivia Williams is a Wiradjuri woman and the founder of the Instagram page Blak Business.