Friday, 31 July 2015

Sport and Racism in Australia

I'm going to add my voice to the Adam Goodes "debate". I say "debate" in "inverted commas" because it shouldn't really be a debate.

This shit is racist.

People are tying themselves in knots to say how it's not racist, but let's get real here:
  • He started getting booed far more than usual when he called out a girl in the crowd for making a racist comment.
  • It escalated when he referred to Australia Day as Invasion Day.
  • It really kicked off when tiring of the growing cacophony of boos, Goodes performed a "war dance" after a goal.

Pictured: The imaginary spear that threatened millions of Australians.

In summary, an Indigenous man makes statements about race in this country, and every time it happens, people boo him more and more.

And yet it's not racist!

Even if you were booing Goodes for how he plays, from way back before all this started, by now you're simply covering up for racism. Booing Goodes for non-racial reasons now is like wearing a white sheet over your head because you really like ghosts.

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Some mandatory reading: this article, by Stan Grant. Even as someone sympathetic to Goodes, I found it very educational, profound and moving

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The current situation with Goodes brings some uncomfortable truths about Australia into the open, but it's not the only instance where the subtle race issues at play in sport reflect broader community attitudes.

This week, former North Sydney and Queensland rugby league player Billy Moore talked about the Warriors playing "coconut footy". I have previously heard former footy players - Kimmorley and Roach spring to mind - describe the Warriors play as "jungle footy". Now I'm sure these pundits don't think it's racist. They are using the term coconut/jungle footy to describe the unstructured and free-flowing play typically associated with the Warriors team. However, this simply demonstrates a stunning lack of awareness and sensitivity typical in Australia when it comes to race relations. 

Coconut or jungle footy is undeniably racist:

  • The term is only ever used about the Warriors team, even though the Warriors have played the same boring, structured way as every NRL team for at least 10 years.
  • The Warriors are also the only NRL team heavily identified with Maori and Polynesian culture, even though all teams have players of Polynesian heritage.
  • Therefore, it's a reasonable inference to say a Polynesian team is inaccurately associated with unstructured play.
  • If you dig deeper into this premise, you could be generous and say this is because Polynesian players value fun over winning, but I suspect it really means Polynesians lack discipline and/or intelligence.

Or, you could just say it's racist because historically the words jungle or coconuts when talking about people are used along with imagery of natives as sub-human savages to be civilised by superior white colonialists.

I also wonder whether the antics of Tomic and Kyrgios would be so vehemently condemned if they were Smith and Jones (or Rafter). Probably not by Dawn Fraser. Fraser once stole a flag from an embassy. I doubt it crossed her mind when behaving so poorly that she should be deported to Scotland, the birthplace of her father.

But there are more subtle clues that part of the criticism of these tennis stars comes from Australian discomfort about culture and race. I've read comments online where Kyrgios is labelled a "thug". I have never heard the word used to describe non-violent behaviour when it comes to white people.
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Back to Goodes - the racism he has faced has been terrible, but it is also troubling that the AFL has provided little support.

This issue has been festering for months, and largely ignored by the League. Weeks ago, Waleed Aly succinctly explained what was happening on Offsiders. The AFL did nothing. Even now, the AFL are publicly condemning it but otherwise not taking any action. It will end not because of the governing body, or the majority of fans, but because now that it's completely out in the open, a bunch of Indigenous players will follow Goodes and Lewis Jetta and take a stand (and hopefully some non-Indigenous ones ones too).

The casual response from the AFL reflects the casual treatment of racism of Australia.

Don't get me wrong, for the most part Australia's aren't intentional racists. Institutional racism is probably relatively low in this country by world standards too. But the reaction to Adam Goodes indicates there is a significant problem - we generally still don't understand race in an historical and political context, and we are incredibly immature when it comes to discussion and confrontation about race issues and politics.

An obvious example - the moment Australia Day is referred to as "Invasion Day" it is labelled divisive. Or is dismissed as something "from the past", from which we should "move on". These are the more polite responses. Instead of rightfully being treated as a complex and critical moral issue to address, the biggest elephant in the room we call Australia is to be ignored indefinitely.

Until we can own our past, and how it frames the present, rather than avoiding altogether, nothing will change. 

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