Decorated Australian Football League (AFL) player Adam Goodes declined to participate in today’s Grand Final parade to honour retiring players. Goodes, an Aboriginal man and former Australian of the Year, retired after a long and successful career but in problematic circumstances. He suffered months of booing from opposition fans at stadiums across the Australian continent, and the prospect of being booed at the Grand Final parade was real.
This persistent booing is attributed to Goodes’ reaction to being audibly called an ‘ape’ by a teenage footy-goer in May 2013, followed by his in-your-face ‘war dance’ goal celebration during Indigenous Round 2015.
Goodes missed a game late in the 2015 season following a torrid week in which Sydney Swans team-mate Lewis Jetta, also an Aboriginal player, took a stand against the booing, only to attract popular and media criticism in turn.
Predominantly, the media debate over the anti-Goodes booing has been over whether or not it ‘had a racial element.’ When placed in the context of Australia’s unremitting history of anti-Black violence, this is preposterous.
What we have seen play out both in AFL stadiums and reflected by inexpert media commentators is a well-rehearsed scenario. The situation is that there has been an accusation of racism and a response. The script, all-too-familiar to people of colour, is being performed perfectly:
- White people act racist
- Person of colour resists silently by ignoring
- White people act racist some more
- Person of colour gets sick of it and fights back
- Person of colour is reprimanded for ‘overreacting’
- Person of colour tries to explain
- White people say race is not the issue
- Person of colour gets completely exhausted and leaves, doesn’t get a good reference
This is a vicious cycle, with no prospect of a satisfactory outcome.
The obvious problem is that, almost always, white people object to being told they have behaved in a racist way. They instead deflect the accusation by blaming people of colour for the way they expressed their upset about the racism.
So, Goodes was criticised for the way he called out the teenage ‘ape’-comment girl.
Australia needs to break out of this cycle. To do that, white Australians need to listen to Aboriginal people.
To listen is to make a significant departure from the script. It involves white people listening when people of colour point out a racist dynamic, trying not to be defensive, and continuing to work on it until it is resolved satisfactorily.
So, what did Aboriginal people say about the anti-Goodes booing? Aboriginal people, including in an extraordinary cry from the heart by journalist Stan Grant, implored white Australia to walk a mile in Goodes’ shoes. This requires an imaginative leap. It is hard for people who do not experience racism to know what it feels like. I do not know what it feels like since I am a very comfortably-off white woman, but I have looked into it.
New York Law Professor Patricia J. Williams says that racism is as bad as physical violence and assault. In fact it is probably worse, and in order to express this Williams denotes racism as ‘spirit-murder’.
The profoundly injurious experience of racism is compounded when the victims of racism are held accountable for the manner in which they flag up the racism. Because the call-out sometimes comes in the form of an outburst, after the victim has had a gutful, the victim is accused of being unruly, unprofessional.
This distorted accountability is clear in the record of West Coast AFL champion Chris Lewis’ record. He was persistently sledged in racial terms by Dermott Brereton and other players, yet it was his response to the race vilification that was punished, not the vilification itself. Lewis missed 23 matches through suspension in his 215-game career, and looking back in 2011, told Fairfax: “After getting suspended and not being able to play because of retaliating and all that sort of stuff, you just sort of learn to put up with it.”
In Goodes’ case, there was staunch protest but no unhinged, unprofessional behaviour. So the attempt to shut him down has taken the form of criticism for making a big deal, for carrying on like a ‘pork chop.’
This deflecting of blame pretends that if Aboriginal people nicely asked white people to stop being racist, that we white people would say, “Oh, OK, sure since you’ve been so polite.”
The question is, is it incumbent upon people of colour to always be gentle and disciplined in the way they flag up that a behaviour, a comment, or an institutional culture is racist?
People of colour are likely to be punished or further excluded when they dare to suggest there’s a bit of racism going on. This puts people of colour in a double-bind. People of colour know this very well – I only know it through reading the work of Black scholars.
People of colour experience racist exclusion and large amounts of harassment – especially people who arc up about what’s thrown at them. I have only the smallest personal insight into the sheer volume of harassment that goes on: I recently received my first political harassment in the form of racist replies to my tweets about a protest against the forced closure of Aboriginal communities.
Aboriginal people I work with receive a high volume of these sorts of messages, including threats. An Aboriginal children’s community centre I know is essentially unable to set up a Facebook page due to the racist comments and posts they are subjected to. White community centres don’t have to take that kind of thing into consideration.
It is important to remember that there is a flip side to disadvantage. When someone is disadvantaged, another is advantaged – but the advantaged one doesn’t even realise it. White people have the personal privilege of going about without being denigrated constantly.
Aboriginal players, non-Aboriginal team-mates and most of the coaches feel and know the anti-Goodes booing to be racist. Many have stated this. Fans need to act more receptively to being challenged about this.
If you cannot recognise the anti-Goodes booing as racism, then you need to ask yourself some hard questions – and consult the work of people of colour who have written about this and asked us to read their stuff. Learn about what racism is, and how it injures people.
Fans: It is OK to admit that you were acting racist but didn’t know, or didn’t know which bit was racist, or didn’t know how much it hurts. Find out how to not act racist. Beyond that, find how to be not just non-racist but actively anti-racist.
3 October 2015