After an intense week of debate and criticism aimed at footballer and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes, I felt enormously sad, frustrated and angry. But it made me want to understand racism better—to reflect on how it works, what's at stake, and how I can help to end it.
Lately, every time Adam Goodes steps onto the field, he has been booed by some people in the crowd. Not like other players are booed and taunted—not at the same level and intensity.
There’s been a lot of debate in traditional and social media about why. One side sees it as all too common extra-strength garden-variety racism; the other denies it’s about race at all, but cite how Goodes drew attention to a 13-year-old who called him an 'ape' during a match in 2013, or his 'war dance' while playing in the AFL’s Indigenous round in May this year, which some interpreted as an 'aggressive act.'
But as Celeste Liddle—National Indigenous Organiser at National Tertiary Education Union—pointed out in her opinion piece in The Guardian entitled, "So an imaginary spear is more terrifying than racism. Really?":
"To deny the link between Goodes’ activism and this crowd response is to deny what is right in front of you. [...] As long as Goodes continues to call out racism [...] it appears he will continue to be targeted by those threatened by his actions.
There will be even more lying in wait to excuse the bad behaviour of these supporters rather than take some positive steps against racism on the field. An invisible spear hurts no one. The continual excusing of racism right under our noses, on the other hand, hurts the AFL and hurts society at large."
I agree. I don't understand how Goode's celebratory dance can be seen as aggressive; how it could hurt so many people. It's a dance! When has a dance hurt anybody?
Don't get me wrong, dance as an art-form can be powerful and compelling, but I've never seen anyone traumatised by it. The rumble between the Sharks and the Jets in WestsideStory doesn't cause people to run screaming from theatres; Kevin Bacon's angry dance in Footloose doesn't come with a warning to viewers; and on the sports field, no one gets upset when the New Zealand All Blacks do the Haka.
I wanted to express empathy and solidarity with Goodes, and I was surprised when someone I knew took offense. What I hadn't realised when I shared the image was that the following text came along with it:
"SHARE in support of this champion in his time of need against the rednecks of this country!"
While I totally understand where the I am Aboriginal Facebook group are coming from, I realise now, as a White Australian, reposting something that includes the word 'rednecks' is problematic. White people calling others 'rednecks' or 'white trash' has become an accepted form of bigotry. Who and who isn't a 'redneck' is often about geography, class, status and education. No one from an affluent suburb with a good job and a university education gets called a 'redneck.'
I didn't mean to, but I f*cked up. It was mean and hopefully the apology I posted beneath the picture helped right what I had done a little. And it made me realise I needed to do some soul-searching, to learn more about Australia's past and future, and my place in it all.
I've found this week's post incredibly difficult to write. The rabbit hole of racism is a labyrinth inhabited by ghosts and monsters, but it's also lined with mirrors. It's a place that terrifies, disorientates and distorts.
I hope you don't mind me trying out a few ideas on you.
'Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly'
“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," Martin Luther King famously wrote from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama: "an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
"Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality."
And what we 'ought to be' is safe, loved, respected and free from discrimination, violence and hatred.
The idea of 'what happens to the least of us, happens to all of us' is a very Christian idea. I longer have 'a faith,' but I have faith; in us, in our humanity—well, if not faith sometimes, at least hope.
From a very early age, I went to church twice a week, and Sunday school and a Christian youth group once a week on top of that.
One of my earliest memories was being at a youth group meeting where we were making paper hats out of newspaper. There were lots of older kids there and I was having a fantastic time. When you're really young and you get to hang out with older kids, it's amazing. It's like they're a different species. They're bigger, taller, smarter, more confident. They're the promise of what you dream you'll become—their existence proof that one day you'll be an adult.
So spending time with the older kids was brilliant. We made the paper hats and decorated them, and I couldn't wait to get home to show my mum and dad. I was so proud.
When I did get home, my mum freaked when she saw what I had made. I mean really freaked. She started shouting at me. I didn't understand what I had done wrong. All I'd done was made a paper hat in church group, just like they showed me, and I had decorated it just like the other kids—decorated with crosses; crosses with funny bent legs.
"Do you know what this is?" she yelled.
The 'funny crosses' were swastikas.
The view from the other side of history
Twenty years or so years later I was in a café, trying to get served.
You know what it's like when you're somewhere busy—not crazy busy, but bustling—and every staff member who walks by your table magically seems to not notice you? It's as if you don't exist. You try not to take it personally. You tell yourself, 'They don't know me. Why would they ignore me?', but it's getting weird that they keep failing to see the big smile you've put on in the hope of catching their attention.
After a few minutes of this, a couple came in and sat nearby. A waitress immediately glided over, gave them menus and chatted about the specials. She had her back to me. I suddenly felt sick. It took a moment to place what I was seeing. In some situations you freeze. You just don't know how to process what's happening right in front of you.
In this trendy hipsterish café near the city, the waitress had a big tattoo of a swastika on the back of her neck.
I didn't know what to do. I'd never been in that situation before. I didn't know if I should stay or leave. I was shaking a little. I wondered if I was being silly. 'Should I be this angry?' I thought. Had she made some mistake of youth and the owners hired her as a gesture of goodwill because she couldn't get a job anywhere else? How did everyone else feel seeing that? Did people ask her about it, or object? Or did they just ignore it and pretend it wasn't there? Why didn't her manager tell her to cover it up?
Piles of bodies flashed into my mind. 15 million of them. Emaciated, limp, grey.
In this day and age, being on this side of history, why would anyone choose to put that symbol on their neck?
I left and never went back there again.
Fighting fire with fire, monsters with monsters
When mum tried to explain what I had done wrong, she went a little overboard.
She started telling me how the German people were bad, how they had long fingernails and gnarled hands, and this is when dad stepped in. Then they started arguing and the whole thing became a mess.
What mum had done in trying to simplify things for my age and level of understanding is to use the same type of imagery the Nazis used to legitimate their extermination of the Jewish peoples.
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he become a monster,” Nietzsche warned, and my mistake and the fallout between mum and dad has haunted me ever since.
It certainly rocked my faith in a few things—one of which was that I couldn't always trust those around me to lead the way.
In the context of this week, it's also made me think about something else—our use of the word 'racist.'
Racism is a description of set of behaviours. It has a technical sense. The way I see it, to have racist views means you believe that race, culture and nationality are predictors of who another person is, what they believe and how they will behave. And it often involves some idea of how they are inferior.
So if someone says, 'I’m not a racist but…', and the end of that sentence involves the use of racial, cultural or national characteristics as the basis of its argument, then the sentiment is racist.
It’s like if… I don’t know, someone said ‘I’m not a cardigan…ist but... the answer to all the world’s problems involves some kind of woollen button up jumper-shirt.
Ok, that's dumb, but you get it.
The problem is though that calling someone 'a racist' has become nothing more than a slur on someone's character. Its technical sense is being lost. It is now treated as a term of abuse: a word that instils fear—like, you’re a socialist, or a communist—that instantly prompts a denial and a counter-attack.
The confusion causes all sorts of cognitive, logical and historical distortions like, 'I'm not a racist! You're a racist for telling me I'm a racist.'
Part of that denial, of course, is that most people in this country don't understand their own privilege.
Ebony and snobbery
The thing I've been struggling with over the past few days is that calling someone a racist denies them the possibility of change. It does something that racism does, in a way: it limits.
That's not to say that the effect of calling someone a racist and being the focus of ongoing and sustained racism are the same thing. I'm not suggesting that people who spout racist sentiments are being equally victimised. What I am saying is that calling someone 'a racist' obscures the real issue and prompts a counter attack which denies all possibility of an open and equal exchange.
Often these debates about what is and isn't racist comes down to a question of intent. When Eddie McGuire joked about Goodes looking like King Kong back in 2013, part of his apology included that he didn't intend to cause offense.
But, of course, words have a history, a context and meaning beyond what we intend.
Many people in this country don't see their views as racist because they don't see themselves as part of a history, a lineage, and a system of domination and control that started with the establishment of the first colonies and continues to this day. A system like a casino where the bank always wins. One that favours White Australia and penalises Black Australia at every turn.
But before we can even tell that story—before we can unpack it and lay it out for all to see—I think we need to weed out any obstructions to that conversation. The problem with labeling someone as a racist is that it doesn't achieve the outcome that we want it to achieve: an acknowledgement of the effect of racism in Australia. I feel like if I say to someone, 'You're a racist', it implies they're bad and incapable of change, while I've achieved some level of moral superiority. It kills the debate.
And on top of that, as a White Australian, I'm subtly denying the future possibility of my own unconscious racism just as I might want to wish away my unconscious and unintended ageism, sexism, homophobia and whatever else lurks behind my words and actions that I'm not aware of.
That's not good for me. I regularly need to explore and reevaluate my own feelings about race, class, gender and sexuality in order to force me to listen, adapt and grow as much as I want other people to do the same.
This is not a spear; it's a rallying cry
I've agonised over these words this week, and I'm not sure I've got them right yet. The experience has been humbling. But I've decided to make a commitment to learn more and hopefully, in the future, make a contribution to the discussion.
These days, what scares me the most about this country is when the battle lines are drawn and we all 'go over the top' in Gallipoli-like waves of attack and counter-attack, only to retreat back to where we started and dig ourselves deeper into our respective positions.
What I do know is that, historically, racism was the justification for dispossessing the First Nations of their land and livelihood. Because of racism, they were seen as legally invisible, culturally inferior and morally undeserving of full and equal consideration. And that dispossession is ongoing.
Indigenous Australians are treated so unfairly in this country and reconciliation seems so far away. But until that day comes, it feels like we're only half a nation—blind and deaf to half our history, half our story, half of who we are.
Racism hurts all of us. It diminishes all it touches. But it's also a call to be bigger than we are, and engage with others in such a way that invites them to be bigger than they are.
Thanks Goodesy! Thanks Lewis! Keep playing. Keep fighting. Keep dancing, please!