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The problem with ‘Naarmcore’, TikTok’s latest fashion aesthetic

WORDS BY HAZEL LEE

“Naarmcore is just another way for White people to use our culture as an aesthetic.”

I was perusing TikTok on a typical day (or night, I’ve lost track now) when a video with the text “Naarmcore is not about White people” put an end to my doomscrolling.

In the video, First Nations content creator Tariq Junaid Ismat observes how strange it is the word Naarm has become so detached from its original roots – that is, from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional owners of the land. 


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If you live in Naarm and spend any time on TikTok, you’ll quickly realise that ‘Naarmcore’ means the following: walking down Swanston Street dressed in your best gorpcore drip, showing off your khaki parachute pants, “walking past people in Brunswick/Fitzroy wearing the most outrageously ugly outfits” and wearing Salomons (which automatically makes you a ‘Naarm-presenting baddie’, sometimes also referred to as a ‘Naarmie’).

Before I unpack Naarmcore further, it’s important to lay out the history of Naarm as a place name for Melbourne. Because if we look at the IATSIS map of traditional countries in Australia, we can see metropolitan Melbourne encompasses two nations. These are Wurundjeri Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung country, loosely dividing the north and south of the city.

Naarm is the name these traditional language groups use to refer to the boundaries of Melbourne. Aboriginal social enterprise and clothing label, Clothing The Gaps, has a helpful explainer on its website. It notes Naarm (also spelled Narrm or Nairm) is “an Aboriginal word used by both the Wurundjeri (Woiwurrung) and Boonwurrung people of the Central Kulin Nation”. 

“Wurundjeri use this word to refer to the scrubland (Narrm) of the now Greater Melbourne CBD area [while] Boonwurrung people use this word to refer to ‘The Bay’ and [it] refers to [the] Port Phillip Bay area of Victoria.” 

As a person of colour writing this article, I cannot speak on behalf of First Nations people when it comes to their perspectives on Naarmcore. My wish is to amplify First Nations people’s voices, which is why I reached out to Tariq, who made the original three-minute Naarmcore TikTok, to be part of the discussion on this TikTok ‘trend’.

Tariq is of Indigenous Australian and Pakistani descent, and while he can’t speak for all First Nations people, his perspective on this conversation is undoubtedly important. 

How Naarmcore became a trend

Tariq recalls the word Naarm grew in popularity, especially among young people in Melbourne, during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. “At the time, many Australians focused on the abhorrent tragedies faced by people of colour in the United States without realising that First Nations people suffer the same and have been for centuries – it doesn’t help that it’s often swept under a bed of lies and false narratives,” Tariq explains.

“Many White Australians jumped on board with Indigenous voices first as a means of support, later turning the narrative onto them [and decentering First Nations people]. Often, we must beg and plead for our voices to be represented in the communities that our ancestors have lived in for tens of thousands of years, only for our words to be taken away from us and used by White people to put themselves on a pedestal of self-righteousness,” he says.

Although Tariq hopes to see people use Naarm in the correct way, he’s disappointed seeing how many Naarmcore TikTok videos have turned the word into “something devoid of any ties to First Nations people”. 

@literallykatebush have “naarm” in your bio but remember to actually show up for us ❤️ #fyp #foryoupage #fypage #naarmcore #naarm ♬ original sound – tariq junaid ismat

He believes that by removing First Nations people from the narrative, Naarmcore is detaching First Nations culture from its origins. “Indigenous culture has run throughout the land for much longer than this ‘nation’ has been here,” he says.

“Naarmcore is just another way for White people to use our culture as an aesthetic… it’s so disappointing because it’s another reflection of how embedded racism is in Australian culture…”

He adds that he doesn’t think people who use the word Naarmcore are actively trying to be racist. Instead, they are often uneducated on the meaning of the language they use and, more to the point, often aren’t making any attempts to learn. This, ultimately, is where the problem lies.

Virtue signalling versus genuine engagement 

While Tariq admits in his TikTok video that he loves that many are embracing and acknowledging Naarm as a traditional place name for Melbourne, during our conversation he tells me it’s important that people also recognise the word still holds cultural meaning. 

@punisher.mp3 idk if this makes sense but regardless, u can pay the rent at paytherent.net.au 🤍 #fyp #melbourne #naarm #naarmcore #fitzroy #brunswick ♬ original sound – IiIIy

“Using Naarm is a great way to get the narrative going. It’s a great way to remind people that we are still here,” he says, adding that to use Naarmcore as solely an aesthetic description means that we’re forgetting the true roots of the place name.

“Used in such a way, [it] reinforces that it’s okay to turn Indigenous culture into aesthetics,” he says.

The word Naarm is peppered across many Instagram bios and numerous brands label themselves as ‘Naarm-based’. I ask Tariq if he thinks that non-First Nations people who use the word Naarm are doing so as a form of virtue signalling.

“I think at the end of the day I would like to see brands that use our words… represent us,” Tariq explains.

“If you’re a clothing brand that is Naarm-based, [employ] diverse models, donate to Pay The Rent, show us that you are there for us on days where we need love and support. If you want to be there, then actually be there with us. Take a stand and do something because it’s right! Show up for us because you care.”

“It’s just a joke”

Deep into my Naarmcore TikTok rabbit hole, I stumbled upon a video in which the creator had replied to a commenter’s criticism of her participation in the Naarmcore trend saying that she was just using the term as a joke.

Tariq tells me he finds it disheartening when people say that Naarmcore is just a lighthearted, ironic internet joke. “You begin to doubt yourself and feel like it’s not that serious – but it is.”

Growing up Muslim and being both Pakistani and Aboriginal, Tariq tells me how every day it can feel like he’s asking for too much, including when his criticisms of a trend like Naarmcore devolve into a “massive argument” with someone on the internet. “We aren’t asking for much, just that people respect traditional names and our culture.”

Commentary like “it’s just a joke” tends to undermine the voices and experiences of First Nations people, and further pushes First Nations people into the role of educator, whether they want it or not.

“As much as I love to help people learn about my experiences as a person of colour and a Blak man, it’s tiring living life with the expectation that we are always happy to educate people,” he tells me.

“People need to understand that every time we educate people on what not to say and our experiences, we are essentially retelling our trauma and using it to show you how it affects us.”

“Sometimes, you just want to give up and not bother fighting. Many First Nations people feel a sense of dispossession – even though our families have lived here for thousands of years,” he says. “White people want us as tokens, to be their diversity check, but when we start speaking, they throw us back down.”

So, can I use the word Naarmcore?

As Tariq notes, using traditional place names is a great first step. But by contextualising it in TikTok and attaching it to an aesthetic trend, you risk removing the name Naarm from its traditional and cultural meaning.

It’s better to speak about Naarm fashion, and back this up with concrete action. Maybe your videos are highlighting one of our country’s many brilliant First Nations fashion designers, or are bolstered with regular donations to a First Nations organisation. As a Naarm-based fashion brand, maybe you’re casting First Nations faces or contracting First Nations talent behind the lens.

Or maybe you’re simply taking the time to educate yourself around our country’s history, so you know exactly what it means when you use the name Naarm.

To learn more about First Nations culture, head here.

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