Sunday, 25 October 2015

Opinion: The Goodes Saga and Anti-Indigenous Racism in Australia

In the past few years, much ink and many more bytes of data have been spent discussing Adam Goodes. For those outside Australia or those who can't quite remember how exactly we got to where we are today, Goodes is an Indigenous Australian player of Aussie Rules football. While playing a game in 2013, a young girl - only 12 or 13 years old - yelled out "ape" at Goodes as he ran past. It was not the first time such a slur had been directed at Goodes on the field, but that day he alerted security, and the girl was ejected from the game.

It was a small thing in of itself, but it acted as a massive catalyst. The next year, Goodes was recognised as Australian of the Year for his "elite place in AFL history" and for being a "great role model and advocate for the fight against racism" (NADC 2014). He was featured in a prominent awareness campaign run by the Australian Human Rights Commission, including the below video:

Throughout the 2014 and 2015 AFL seasons, Goodes was booed loudly when he ran onto the field, or whenever he had the ball. This precipitated a massive national debate about whether or not the booing was racially motivated. Many people, the booers amongst them, said that it was just because Goodes was playing for the opposite team, and that really, in a way, it was a compliment. They booed because he was such a good player. Others admitted that - in a roundabout way - they booed Goodes because of his race: by speaking out against racism, he was being divisive, and there was no place for people who tried to stir trouble. There were messages of support as well of course, but they were drowned out amidst the vitriol. Goodes took leave from playing, and later announced his retirement from professional football.

But this week, he was thrust into the spotlight - and the national debate - again, when department store David Jones announced Goodes as one of their brand ambassadors. Their Facebook page was quickly overrun by racist posts and declarations from people saying they'd never step in David Jones again. Once more, there were messages of support, and through counter-mobilisation and Facebook's curation systems, these ended up being the more dominant of the two.

But the question remains, what exactly is Australia's problem with Adam Goodes? We call it racism - and it is racist - but it's not that quite simple. From 2011 onward, Indigenous model Samantha Harris was a David Jones ambassador, and no-one said a peep. But Adam Goodes has become a flashpoint, a litmus test of Australian society's pretensions and self-delusions, our ideas of what we are, and what we are not.

In this massive, bubbling pot of ill-will aimed toward Goodes, racism is only one ingredient. It's mixed in with ethnocentrism, nationalism and Tall Poppy Syndrome. An inherent part of the Australian psyche, Tall Poppy Syndrome is where those who have succeeded in their field or "get big heads" are forcibly humbled or 'cut down' by a begrudging public. Another analogy that is used is the crab mentality, based on the observation that, if one crab attempts to climb the wall of the bucket in which it is confined, its compatriots will drag it back down. However, all crabs are not dragged back down with equal force. There's an undeniable aspect of "knowing your place" that makes attacks against non-white Australians - particularly Indigenous Australians - extra vicious.

So, it's not necessarily Goodes' indigeneity that offends people, it's that he's Indigenous and proud; Indigenous and taking a stand against racism; Indigenous and, ultimately, not playing by society's tacit rule of turning the other cheek. Because it's mostly okay to be an Indigenous tall poppy. So long as you are apolitical and don't make a point of being Indigenous, everything is hunky dory. Australia at large will only acknowledge your ethnicity on its terms, when it wants to hold you up as an example for feel-good moments like this year's rugby league grand final. You'll used by the Patriot brigade to show that look, they are not racist, they don't have anything against Jonathan Thurston, Deborah Mailman or whomever.

But as soon as you become a poppy that is swaying independently of the winds of society, the status quo is upset and everything changes. Society's blindfold is ripped away, and we are forced to look at our own ugly reflection in the mirror. We don't provide a fair go for all, and we are not a shining beacon of multicultural success. And that's when the claws come out, when people's perception of themselves, and the world they live in, is threatened. That's why we have this segue so common it's almost a cliche: "I'm not racist, but...". People are reaffirming their identity, their place in the world, before they launch into an attack on those who threaten it. And no-one is more threatening than Adam Goodes, who reminds Australia that he is not just Australian by miming an Indigenous war dance or refusing to take racist taunts lying down.

We saw the same phenomenon last week, when Indigenous actress Miranda Tapsell, stated on television that, because of the racism she has endured, she "did not identify as Australian". The online response was a textbook case of what I have been describing, with many comments in the vein of this one:
What a divisive, inflammatory show and a hateful, one-sided woman. Address the venom that comes out of "her people's" mouths....Cry me a river...not listening to sooks with thin skin...Broken record, victim, victim.
I couldn't help but from altering spelling and grammatical errors as I came across them, but you still get the picture. The insult of "sook" - meaning a cry-baby or weak, overly emotional person - is a favoured tool to pull Indigenous non-conformers back down the bucket walls and into the mire. The idea is that all the wrongs done to Indigenous Australians are in the past, and "they" should "get over it". As a concept, it is entirely based on the national self-delusion of equal treatment and equal opportunity I have discussed above. It's ironic, given Australia still commemorates the myth of the brave and egalitarian ANZACs one hundred years later. For one, it's "lest we forget", and for the other, it's "you sook, why are you flogging a dead horse?".

By retiring and stepping mainly out of the public limelight, Goodes has refused to be the escapee crab. He's tried to remove himself from the bucket that is the Australian public sphere. Unfortunately, it's followed him to a position at David Jones that has hitherto been so unremarkable it barely receives an inch or two in the business or fashion sections of the newspaper.

The break up between Goodes and the Australian public has been as acrimonious as the rest of their relationship. But, hopefully, one day, Australia will be grown up enough to say "It's not you, it's me", and Goodes will be able to rescind the metaphorical AVO he's taken out on us all. In the meantime, there's always another crab. Australia will turn to ripping them down, and Goodes will be all but forgotten.

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