Australia is currently patting itself on the back for having a “discussion about race.” This shallow, vapid “discussion” revolves around a few recent events. To sum up: at last Friday night’s AFL game, Indigenous Sydney footballer Adam Goodes was called an ape by a 13-year-old Collingwood fan. She was ejected from the grounds, Goodes was too upset to continue the match, and was approached in the Sydney rooms afterwards by Collingwood president Eddie McGuire to offer a personal apology. Goodes asked the media not to vilify the girl herself, but to think about how she was a product of the casual attitude towards racism that exists in Australia. McGuire, whose conduct was similarly exemplary, then fucked it up by saying on breakfast radio that Goodes could promote King Kong the musical.
Most of the coverage revolves around whether the girl knew “ape” was racist, whether McGuire’s apology was good enough, whether he should he step down as Collingwood president, etc. This is how racism controversies always play out in the Australian media: we behave as though racist comments are mere insults that reflect poorly on the character of the person making them, rather than symptomatic of the deep and persistent racism this country was founded upon. We pretend that racist remarks are the cause rather than the effect. This is why there are thousands upon thousands of comments and tweets and letters to the editor voicing opinions ranging from genuine confusion about why Goodes was so upset to sneering remarks that he should “toughen up.”
It’s all well and good to call out public figures for making racist remarks, but the entire affair is pointless unless people are told why it’s wrong to make racist remarks. This seems obvious, but apparently they need to be. Plenty of white people will compare being called an ape to being called a Pom or a sheep-shagger, either oblivious or willfully blind to the social and cultural context that separates Brits and Kiwis from Aboriginals. A visitor from a foreign culture or an alien planet could be forgiven that thinking Indigenous Australians are on the same rung of society as white Australians. Because, contrary to the narrative of Australia’s Big Conversation About Race, the issue is not “Aboriginal person called name by white person.” The issue is “Aboriginal people still suffering the consequences of a white empire that occupied their land by force.”
Sam de Brito, hardly Australia’s most articulate or thoughtful columnist, is one of the few I can think of who has pointed out the elephant in the room over the past few days:
…That hurt is proportionate to the suffering, malevolence, violence, cruelty and indignity that men and women experienced during slavery in the US.
This is an experience to which we have never given full acknowledgement in this country. We do not understand the anger, the shame, the frustration, the bitterness and sorrow of what was taken from indigenous Australians…
…We said “sorry”, but for what? Crippling your culture? Raping your women? Murdering your children? Ingraining shame into your upbringing? Alienating you from contemporary culture to the point there is not one indigenous TV personality regularly seen on our TV screens?
White Australians say “harden up” and “get over it” about racist jokes because that’s what they really want Aboriginals to do about the dispossession of their land and the continuing marginalisation of their people. Harden up. Get over it. Stop complaining, stop drinking, stop being unemployed. Stop making me feel guilty.
Until the Australian media can link these regular racism controversies together into what they are – a reflection of racism in our society, and an acknowledgement of the fact that we fucked Aboriginals over and we’re still fucking them over – then this scenario is going to play out over and over again like an Escher drawing.