Inside the Adam Goodes racism debate

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Australians of all backgrounds should be comfortable enough to celebrate their heritage without fear of retribution
When Adam Goodes pointed out a 13-year-old girl in the crowd after she repeatedly called him an “ape” during the course of a match against Collingwood, on 24 May, 2013, he could scarcely have imagined the ramifications would linger, fester and ultimately reach such a delayed yet explosive crescendo.
While recently performing a cultural dance to celebrate scoring a goal during the AFL’s Indigenous Round – almost exactly two years to the day since the game against Collingwood – Goodes, a two-time Brownlow Medallist, four-time All-Australian, member of the Indigenous Team of the Century and 2014 Australian of the Year, was met with a cacophony of booing and jeering that forced him to take extended leave from the game.
But is it racism?

To begin with, it is misguided and irrelevant to suggest, as many have, that Goodes is being booed because of the way he plays the game. The problem with that line of defence is that there are dozens of players who play the game in a more negative fashion than Goodes, yet don’t have to endure torrents of abuse every time they touch a football.
In any case, Goodes has been playing a niggly, unpopular brand of football for the best part of a year, yet the jeers and taunts have only taken their current form in the last month, after he began taking increasing pride in his Aboriginal Australian background and taking a stand against racism. The correlation is damning.
Some argue Goodes has brought public contempt upon himself because of the way in which he has expressed his heritage.
It is almost as if Australia has no issues with accepting Indigenous culture – as long as it’s not displayed in public, it’s not in our faces, and takes only the forms prescribed by White Australia, such as allowing boomerangs and didgeridoos to be sold in souvenir shops, adding a few dot points to the school syllabus, and having a National Sorry Day.
After all, White Australia is not accustomed to seeing Indigenous Australians proudly displaying their heritage.
White Australia is more accustomed to an ashamed, reclusive and apologetic Indigenous population, just as, at various points in time, Australians from Southern Europe, Asia and Africa have felt compelled to avoid putting on display their respective cultures.
While the majority of those Australians are now comfortable enough to celebrate their heritage without fear of retribution, the term “Aboriginal” is still treated as a dirty word, synonymous with welfare payments, housing commissions and drug and alcohol abuse.

The debate surrounding the issue of racism in sport has invited discussion from the best and brightest minds in the country, who are overwhelmingly in support of Goodes.
There are plenty of encouraging signs that Australia is willing to stand up for one of its own. All 18 AFL team captains have added their voices to the campaign, seeking an end to the hostility.
The obligatory hashtag #IstandwithAdam has been wildly successful, and there was an electric atmosphere at the most recent Sydney Swans game, which was as much about celebrating the one man not playing as it was about applauding the 36 men who were on the field.

Unfortunately, as always, we have also had to endure the sheer ignorance of conservative commentators such as Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, who have engaged in a vicious campaign of victim-shaming against Goodes, complete with false assumptions and absurd conclusions.
Their vitriol is embarrassing, if only for the fact that these deluded shock jocks are given platforms through which to disseminate their toxic opinions.
Jones lamented Goodes ‘campaign of hate’ against the 13-year-old girl who called him an “ape” – ignoring the fact that Goodes implored the public not to attack the girl, but rather wanted the situation to be used as an opportunity to educate.
Meanwhile, Bolt called for Goodes himself to apologise for his “dangerous and stupid war dance”, presumably because the hurling of imaginary spears injures countless white supremacists every year.
No doubt their greatest fan, former A-League goalkeeper Griffin McMaster helpfully suggested that Goodes should be deported from Australia if he doesn’t like it, oblivious to his penchant for brutal irony.
Shane Warne, the consummate gentleman whose good behaviour is the envy of the nation, also found himself engaged in a Twitter storm after speaking out against Goodes. Of course Aboriginal Australians should be told how to behave by privileged white Australians – isn’t that how it’s always been?
To those who draw comparisons with other athletes who are booed and simply “get on with it”, you are in a position of rare privilege to lack the capacity to understand Goodes’s predicament.
After all, it is difficult for those who have not experienced racism to comprehend the sharpness of its blade. But pleading ignorance is no defence.
Race is the one individual attribute a person can be attacked for that is, simultaneously, something they cannot control, something that is at the core of their very existence, and something that may well define their identity, if not the identity of their family and friends.
If you have been booing Adam Goodes every time he touches the ball because of the way he plays the game, your juvenility is excused. But to compare it to booing any other player for any other reason is to miss the point entirely.

If your actions are perceived as racism, it is not an opportunity for you to declare that you are not a racist.
It is not an invitation for you to start commenting on how political correctness has reached untenable levels, or that there is some underlying reason that justifies your behaviour.
The Racial Discrimination Act does not have regard to a person’s intentions in determining whether their behaviour is illegal, so it’s fanciful to expect the person subject to that behaviour be expected to understand its motivation.
It’s a lot easier to “get on with it” when you’re the one doing the attacking – so how about you just cut it out?

Ritam Mitra
Ritam Mitra
Ritam is an award-winning journalist and lawyer based in Sydney. Ritam writes on domestic and global politics, human rights and social justice, and sport.

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