Friday, May 31, 2013

Football-in-mouth disease, a national malaise

Naked Truth (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

It's National Reconciliation Week

What better time for an ugly, bone-headed brawl to demonstrate how much we need action on racism? Last weekend's incident during an Australian Rules football game made news all around the world. A 13-year-old girl shouted the word 'ape' at an Aboriginal player. A child's stupidity sells, unlike the ongoing tragedy of exclusion, disadvantage and exploitation blighting the lives of thousands of Indigenous Australians.

Then Eddie McGuire, (mental age 13), scored a spectacular own goal by suggesting on his radio show that the player targeted for racial vilification, Adam Goodes, might be drafted in to promote the musical King Kong, which is soon to open in Melbourne. McGuire is one of our many limelight hogs who has a monopoly on paid employment and apparently does none of it well.

His howler was all the more horrific as another of his 'positions' is president of the Collingwood Football Club - the very club whose 13-year-old supporter, er, kicked the row off in the first place. McGuire later attempted to claim it as a slip of the tongue and/or a failed attempt at irony. He wasn't too sure which exactly because he was so tired - presumably from trying to hold down half-a-dozen jobs simultaneously. A rewind of the exchange with his co-announcer indicates that neither excuse is plausible. As McGuire persists with his ill-starred point, his colleague sounds more and more nervous in his feeble rebuffs. Intentional racism? He says not but, at the very least, it's wilful ignorance.

Adam Goodes has been calm and gracious in his response, calling for a whole-of-society approach,

"We've just got to help educate society better so it doesn't happen again."

Which begs the question - how does anyone get all the way to 13 without understanding that it's wrong to call a black person 'ape'? Not just because it isn't nice to insult someone's physical appearance, but because we share a bloody and recent history of colonial oppression where conquered indigenous peoples were killed or enslaved by white settlers across the so-called New World in the belief that they were godless and therefore no better than animals. 'Ape' is a barb as potent as 'nigger'.

Further, how does a radio personality who is also president of the football club at the centre of the storm not understand that 'King Kong' and 'ape' are synonymous and that he is the very last person on earth from whom such a transgression would be excusable? And, since McGuire is supposedly so vehemently anti-racist himself, how does he not figure that a comparison with King Kong, the cartoon 'ape' who is stolen from his homeland, put in chains, forced into entertainment slavery and then killed when he rebels would be deeply offensive to an Aboriginal man. Now there's your irony.

The answer isn't complex if you've got a clear head and Indigenous leader Professor Mick Dodson puts it as succinctly as anyone,

"Anybody who understands racism simply doesn't say things like this."

And this really is the pointy end of the point. White Australia doesn't understand what racism is. Tossing a few dot paintings on the tails of Qantas planes and inviting some Aboriginal elders to open your school fete does not tick the full-commitment-to-equality box for once and forever. I'm a repatriated Australian and, as many of you have heard an insufferable number of times, not a particularly happy decamper. I returned after 27 years abroad a week or so before Kevin Rudd made his Sorry speech. I cried. We all cried. And then what? Nothing. It isn't enough to make a qualified token of atonement every fifteen or so years, no matter how tear-jerking. We are the champions of the shamefully hollow gesture.

Luke Pearson in this thoughtful piece suggests that the national effort should be directed towards anti-racism rather than non-racism.

'Anti-racism is not a stop sign. It is a learned skill. It benefits those who understand it by broadening their perspective, and it benefits those negatively impacted by reducing how often the encounter it from people who too often claim they “don’t mean to cause any offence."

I agree. The problem is deeply entrenched and requires more than superficial etiquette upgrades. Training white people not to say the wrong thing is not enough - although clearly beyond the ability of some to grasp. Shouted language is not the issue, it is merely one indicator. There are worse, covert indicators. There is a conspiracy of silence, a spurious sign-language created by white people for white people which operates in areas where Aboriginal people try to fit themselves into white suburbia. I live it. I feel it.

When I first started looking for a house to buy here in Larrikin's End, estate agents tried to direct me away from certain streets. It finally dawned on me that this was because some Aboriginal families lived in those streets. I asked one agent why he would infer that I would not want to live in a street where there were Aboriginal families. His answer really shocked me. He wasn't a racist himself, you understand. He lived in a street where there were Aboriginal families and had 'never had any trouble'. Yet he had presumed for me prejudices based on my apparently refined, middle-aged-lady appearance. I certainly wasn't about to wear his bogus overlay and told him so. The grand irony is that I'd come from Hackney in the East End of London and had lived in a predominantly black neighbourhood for most of my adult life. I was used to being the only white person on the bus. 

This is the problem that needs solving. Indigenous people in Australia face prejudice for simply being. An estate agent defied the evidence of his own experience and tried to influence a decision I might make, based on no indication from me at all that I might be a bigot. The only conclusion that I can draw is that bigotry is assumed to be the default position of, what? someone my age? a single woman looking for a house in which to live alone? any white person? That's what's so scary. Much of the fear and prejudice that exists in this country between the different cultures is a phantom creation. It's also what makes Luke Pearson absolutely right. Doing nothing is not an option. Those of us who are pro-equality and anti-racism must say so wherever and whenever necessary. 

PS: A couple of days ago, I signed an online petition to recognise the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution of this country. There were only 140,605 names before mine. At that rate, the planned referendum to update the preamble to our constitution will be a long time coming. It's obviously worth doing but it isn't the answer to the intellectual and emotional log-jam that prevents this country from healing.