I’ve been wanting to write an ejo about racism for a very long time now, as I live in a country in which it’s rife. A place where someone might think it’s OK to make comments like, “I could never date a black girl because I’d feel like her skin was… always dirty,” scrunching his nose in distaste at the thought. A place where the job classifieds can specify, “Indians and Pakistanis need not apply”. A place in which an entire hierarchy is based on where you were born and the colour of your skin. It is a minefield, and perhaps one day I’ll sort out the mess that this blatant racism causes in my head and I’ll write about it. But in the meantime, I’m compelled to write about a place where racism of this magnitude and brazenness does not exist. A place where it’s illegal to discriminate or vilify someone based on the colour of their skin. A place where, if he’s good enough, an indigenous man is afforded the opportunity to play elite professional sport, alongside his non-indigenous counterparts. A place where, on the surface at least, racism has been stamped out. Australia.
Several weeks ago the Australian media (including social) blew up over a topic that proved incendiary and divisive. What happened was that a certain football player was being booed every time he was on the field. I’m not talking about the kind of booing that happens when a player does something you don’t like. I’m talking about an ugly, jeering, vicious kind of booing. Booing filled with hate and malice. Terrible, terrible booing.
So, what did this player do to deserve this treatment? A few people justified it by saying they didn’t like the way he played footy. Interesting. The 18 year Australian Football League (AFL) veteran has had the rare distinction of being twice awarded the league’s highest honour, the Brownlow medal, given to the season’s best and fairest player. For emphasis: BEST and FAIREST player of the entire league. This is no small feat. What else? He is a two-time premiership player (which means his team has won the Grand Final – twice!). Again, a great achievement. Obviously he’s doing something right, when we’re talking about his football prowess, which kind of negates the argument that the disproportionate booing is for the way he plays.
I guess this is as good a time as any to introduce the player under discussion. Beloved readers, meet Adam Goodes, an Adnyamathanha Aboriginal man and one of the most successful indigenous players in the history of the AFL.
Adam Goodes. My hero.
I might as well also mention that in addition to his sporting achievements, Goodes was elected 2014 Australian of the Year for his work with underprivileged indigenous youth and tireless campaigning against racism. Adam Goodes also advocates against family violence, having experienced it in his youth. Oh, and he took his mother as his date to the 2003 Brownlow medal ceremony, an event usually attended by the players’ “glamorous” WAGs. What an asshole. Boooooooooooooooooo!!!
When I started looking into why people were booing him so much, it became fairly obvious to me that the underlying reasons, sadly, were racist in hue. Let me summarise them below, and you can make up your own minds.
When Goodes was chosen as 2014 Australian of the Year, he made a comment at the ceremony that Australia Day was a day tinged with sadness for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the indigenous peoples of Australia. He referred to it as “invasion day”. This didn’t go down well with some (racist?) Australians. The comment was said to be divisive and offensive. Why don’t we have a look at what he actually said:
“There was a lot of anger, a lot of sorrow, for this day and very much the feeling of invasion day. But in the last five years, I’ve really changed my perception of what is Australia Day, of what it is to be Australian and for me, it’s about celebrating the positives, that we are still here as indigenous people, our culture is one of the longest surviving cultures in the world, over 40,000 years. That is something we need to celebrate and all Australians need to celebrate.
“There are people out there thinking that today is a great day for Australia — well, it is. It’s a day we celebrate over 225 years of European settlement and right now, that’s who we are as a nation but we also need to acknowledge our fantastic Aboriginal history of over 40,000 years and just know that some Aboriginal people out there today are feeling a little bit angry, a little bit soft in the heart today because of that, and that’s OK as well.”
I don’t see how anyone can be offended at that. It is conciliatory, whilst bringing focus to the fact of our country’s history – something that often gets swept under the rug. Australia was forcefully taken from its indigenous people. Bringing attention to that shouldn’t be deemed offensive, or ungrateful. It’s just a fact, and one that should actually be part of the conversation when we celebrate each year on 26th January. And from my perspective, if you boo him for this reason, you are booing him because you are racist and you don’t like hearing it.
He has also said that the Australian Constitution is a racist instrument. People didn’t like that either, suggesting that not only was it inflammatory but that he had no idea what he was talking about and that he should keep his opinions to himself. But if you look at it from the point of view of indigenous people, the Constitution is racist. In fact, in 2012, Dr. Helen Szoke, the Race Discrimination Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission stated that an Expert Panel, established by the Prime Minister at the time, had “made a number of recommendations that seek to address the embedded racism in our country’s Constitution”. What were those recommendations? To repeal the provisions (Section 25 and Section 51 (xxvi)) allowing the government to “discriminate on the basis of race”. In addition, the panel recommended that several new sections be inserted. One that “explicitly respects and acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. One that prohibits the government from “making laws that discriminate on the basis of race”. And finally, a section that “proposes the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as the “original Australian languages”.
So, Adam Goodes wasn’t being inflammatory at all. He was simply championing a cause that he strongly believes in (and that the Australian Human Rights Commission also believes in) – the very reason he was given the honour of Australian of the Year in the first place. If you were booing him for this reason, then you were booing him because you are racist.
Let’s take a look now at when the extreme booing started. I call it May of this year when, during a game, Goodes celebrated kicking a goal by doing a little war dance which ended with him throwing an imaginary spear into the opposing team’s crowd. A lot of people didn’t like this, calling it offensive, aggressive, provocative, threatening and foolish. Let’s have a look at what he actually did.
To me, this is simply entertainment. Pure theatre. A joyful celebration. I cannot see how it could be construed as offensive. What I’m seeing is a proud Aboriginal man, celebrating his accomplishment with a ritual of cultural significance to him. And let me point out that this incident occurred during Indigenous Round. For fuck’s sake! It’s nothing less than sheer perfection. If you’re offended by this, and this is why you booed Goodes, then you’re booing him because you’re racist.
Finally, one of the main reasons proffered for the booing was an incident that occurred over two years ago. Here’s what went down. While playing a match during Indigenous Round (yes, again), Goodes heard someone in the crowd call him an ape. Before I go on, can we all agree that this is racist and absolutely unacceptable? The AFL has very strict rules about racism. Fans are immediately ejected and subject to police investigation. And rightly so. When Goodes heard himself referred to as an ape, he didn’t let it slide. He stood up for himself. He put his foot down. He stopped playing and he pointed in the direction of the slur.
Refusing to take racist shit lying down.
To me, this picture is a powerful image of a proud Aboriginal man refusing to accept racism. This picture invokes in me, a strong swell of admiration, empathy, respect and support for Adam Goodes. I love him because of this picture. Unfortunately, a lot of people had the opposite reaction. Especially when the racist turned out to be a 13 year old girl.
What happened next is that the girl was taken away from her guardians, detained for several hours and questioned by police. Adam Goodes has been blamed for that ever since. Which is a joke. Blame the police, blame the AFL, but don’t blame Adam Goodes. He didn’t choose to be racially vilified that day (or any other day). He didn’t choose for that young girl to be the culprit. Did she deserve for Adam Goodes to point a recriminating finger at her? Absofuckinglutely. Did she deserve the treatment that came after? I don’t know, but I know that blaming Adam Goodes for it is wrong. He has been called “vile” and “revolting” for what happened. What I think is vile and revolting is booing a man who stands up against the kind of racism he has experienced over and over again, his whole life. The kind of racism where he’s told to shut up and stop sooking. Where he’s told to stop playing the victim. Where he’s told to harden the fuck up.
And so the debate raged online. It shocked me, it disappointed me, it made me angry and it made me ashamed to be Australian to hear people say that Adam Goodes deserved to be booed for any of the reasons outlined above. It seemed that racism was alive and well in Australia after all. And after living outside my beloved country for the last seven years, that was a slap in the face. I admit that I became quite emotionally involved in the debate. I simply couldn’t understand it, and I did a lot of research because I wanted to wrap my head around what was happening. The conclusion I came to is that racism might be too specific a brush to paint the booers with. I stand by my opinion that Adam Goodes was subject to intense, prolonged and persistent racism. But it’s not that simple. What I’ve come to realise is that Australia embodies an axiom of white hegemony. What is hegemony? The dictionary defines it as “authority”, “leadership”, “power”, “predominance”, “command”. When you put the word “white” in front of all those, you start to get a picture of how Australia subsists.
If you don’t believe that white hegemony exists in Australia, let’s look at some numbers. If Australia was truly racially equal, then the 3% of the population that is indigenous should be represented fairly across the board. What you’ll find is that this is not the case. Nowhere near. Indigenous infant death rates are twice as high as those for non-indigenous children. Life expectancy for indigenous men and women is almost ten years less than for non-indigenous people. Indigenous Australians are four times as likely to need hospital care for chronic conditions, three times as likely to develop diabetes, and three times as likely to die during childbirth as non-indigenous Australians. Even though they only make up 3% of the population, indigenous suicide accounts for 50% of all Australians taking their own life. Half!! Even more disturbing is that for youth suicides that number goes up to 80%. Indigenous Australians are 27% less likely to finish school, and five times as likely to be unemployed as non-indigenous Australians. The average income for indigenous households is about half that of non-indigenous households; and the rate of domestic violence assault requiring hospitalisation is between 25-32 times that of non-indigenous people.
And the numbers keep on coming. Though they made up just 2.3% of the adult population, in 2013, 27.4% of the adult prison population was comprised of indigenous Australians. In Western Australia that number increases to 45%. In fact Western Australia has the proud distinction of leading the world in incarcerating indigenous people. Must be great for business.
So try telling me that the white man in Australia doesn’t have authority, power, predominance and command over indigenous people. Try telling me that white hegemony is a construct. And I’ll tell you that we are systemically crushing Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders through fear and denial.
So, how does this relate to Adam Goodes? Well, to paraphrase from an article by Trey Lyon: racism is the philosophy, but white hegemony is the system. I truly believe that a lot of the people booing Adam didn’t realise that what they were doing was “racist”. So there was a lot of offence being taken around the place. In fact, it seemed to me that being called a racist was more offensive than actually being one. But when you look at the numbers above, it is really clear to me that we all have a responsibility to do everything we can to stop suppressing indigenous Australians. To insist that booing Goodes was not racially driven is to deny Australia’s tainted history. What I heard a lot was that if he wanted the booing to stop, he should have shut his mouth and stopped calling Australia racist. What I heard was that if he didn’t want to get booed, he should never have done the spear throwing dance. He was asking for it. Like a woman wearing a short skirt is asking to get raped. It’s victim blaming.
Let’s look, instead, at where the blame truly lies.
It lies in the fabric of Australian society, which, through white hegemony, is so finely and intricately woven with racism that if you look at it as a whole you might not even see it. In fact, you might even convince yourself that it doesn’t exist. But as long as being Aboriginal means being a second class citizen, it exists. The Australian Human Rights commission has identified that it exists. To say that Australia, as a country, is not racist is to either be wilfully ignorant, or to be a denier. Both are harmful.
I guess the problem with identifying racism lies in the fact that it’s not as obvious as it used to be. Aborigines not having the “right” to vote until as recently as 1967 was obvious racism. Referring to indigenous Australians as “abos”, “coons” and “boongs” was obvious racism. Not allowing Aborigines to play football because of their race was obvious racism. All of these things have now been rectified – but that doesn’t mean that racism has been eradicated. It’s just been normalised – to the point where people may not even be aware that their thoughts and actions are racist. People like that young 13 year old girl who called Adam Goodes an ape. Whether she knew it was racist or not is not provable (and of course she denied it). But whether she knew it or not is irrelevant. Ignorance is not an excuse for racism. It’s the cause.
This is why the debate gets so messy. I can’t get into people’s heads and say with absolute certainty that the reason they were booing Adam Goodes on the football field was racist. As far as I’m aware, not one single person put their hand up and admitted that they were booing him because of his race. As if. We live in a society where that kind of behaviour is not accepted. But…. I can say with absolute certainty that the reasons people gave to justify their booing of Adam Goodes were in fact 100% racially motivated. Maybe not directly, but there is most certainly a causal link between his outspoken stance against racism in Australia and his being booed on the football field.
Adam Goodes retired last week after a long and illustrious career. He was booed right up to his very last match, which just breaks my heart. It’s a shame that such a fine player will probably be remembered for this ugly chapter in Australian sport. But I will choose to remember him as someone to admire, someone to look up to. I choose to honour him and I truly hope that he continues his amazing work with indigenous youth and educating Australia about racism.
I can’t do much to fight racism myself, but this is what I can, and will, do. I can write about it, and attempt to bring awareness of the subject to a wider audience. When I encounter instances of racism, I will always, always, stand up and say “No, that’s not right”. This occasion has been the first time that I’ve been turned upon for doing so (and you can read about that in next month’s ejo) but you know what, I don’t care.
You can attack me all you like for calling out racism. It doesn’t say anything about me – but it says a lot about you.