The year-long vilification of Aboriginal AFL star Adam Goodes should not be trivialised and dismissed as simply ignorance or mob mentality. This is a valuable opportunity to reflect on race relations in Australia and the ways racism is perpetuated.
After taking a brief break in the face of sustained booing that dogged him whenever he took to the field, the Sydney Swans star returned to the game for the Swans August 8 win over Geelong. The Geelong crowd warmly welcomed Goodes in a public demonstration of all that is humane and open-hearted in the Australian public.
However, the respect and solidarity shown for Goodes is not by itself enough to end the casual racism and institutionalised discrimination that is part of everyday reality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.
ABC sports commentator Francis Leach said on July 30 that for Goodes, being an Aboriginal man is inseparable from his identity as a football player. The twice Brownlow-winning player is a proud Adnyamathanha man who has drawn on his sporting success and public profile to support his people.
Goodes stands apart from his fellow elite athletes because he has not restricted himself to philanthropic work. Instead, he has chosen the road less travelled and at great personal cost chosen to speak out about the overt and covert racism against Aboriginal people.
For example, as part of his acceptance speech for the 2014 Australian of the Year award, Goodes said he believed that our “choices and how we interact with one another create our relationships and this in turn creates the environment that we live in”. For Goodes, racism is a community issue – not an individual one.
However, discussions on race in key public domains – starting with the corporate media - tend to focus on the individual. In the debate over Goodes, voices on one side appealed to the individual capacity for empathy while those on the other defended the individual “right” to boo.
Under what social conditions, however, does it become possible to ignore the cultural and institutionalised racism that enabled the booing to go on for a year? It becomes possible:
• When there is widespread and entrenched historical amnesia in a society about the systematic debasement and devaluation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people and world views and ways of life.
This amnesia allowed our politicians to make Australia one of four countries that voted against the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It continues to allow them to tell our Aboriginal brothers and sisters that they are waiting for the “right time” to recognise them in the Australian constitution.
• When key social institutions including education, political parties and the aforementioned for-profit media continue to marginalise, tokenise, and silence ATSI perspectives and knowledge. Those who identify with culturally dominant groups can then unapologetically instruct other cultural groups about which parts of their culture they can appropriately express in public.
So for example, we can exploit the physical talent of Aboriginal athletes but tell them to keep most of their “indigenous-ness” off the field.
• When we insist on only viewing each other as individuals — free from history and culture. Then it makes perfect sense to fixate on the pain and embarrassment caused to one 13-year old girl that Goodes called out for a racist slur — who Goodes then publicly praised for her courageous apology. But at the same time, ignore the persistent over-representation of Aboriginal children and adolescents in the Australian juvenile justice and “state care” systems.
In short, booing Goodes becomes possible when we separate the football player from his family, community, culture and history. What this debate underlines is a form of historical amnesia that marks societies where nation-building has occurred on the foundations of colonisation, exploitation and outright destruction of indigenous peoples.
It strikes me that part of what is revealed by the Goodes saga is a fierce and enduring struggle over remembering and forgetting. In this debate about sportsmanship and invisible spears, whose histories are being remembered and whose are we distancing ourselves from? Whose histories are we avoiding taking responsibility for?
The subtext in the Goodes debate is about acknowledging or denying Aboriginal accounts of what it means to be Australian today — and what it has meant since 1770. If we recognise this, then, to paraphrase historian Chris Healey, Goodes’ actions are simply and steadfastly a refusal to allow himself and his people to be “erased” yet again from Australian history and contemporary culture.
[Nisha Thapliyal is a human rights and anti-racist educator.]