By Sarah Capper
June 07, 2013
In 1999, former St Kilda ruckman Peter “Spida” Everitt was cited for racial vilification against Melbourne player Scott Chisholm. Everitt reportedly called Chisholm a “black c**t” during Round 2 of the AFL season that year.
Everitt copped a $20,000 fine, self-imposed a four week match ban, and undertook a racial awareness program. He apologised to the Aboriginal community, to Chisholm and spent time with Chisholm’s family.
There was copious media comment on the AFL and racism, and player attitudes. The outrage, as demonstrated on talkback and in newspaper editorials, centred on the racist implications of Everitt’s phrase.
The public narrative, by and large, didn’t seem remotely perturbed by the sexism attached with the use of the word “c**t”.
The media circus rolled on, with other episodes of racist attitudes within the AFL rearing their ugly heads along the timeline leading up to last week, when the issue dominated the news, sparked by a 13 year old Collingwood supporter calling Sydney Swans great Adam Goodes an “ape” from the crowd during the opening match of the AFL’s Indigenous Round. Of all the Rounds, yep.
The already-big media story was then lobbed into a murkier depths when Collingwood President Eddie McGuire linked Goodes with possible promotional tactics for the musical King Kong on his breakfast radio program.
Prior to the ‘King Kong’ comments, the Collingwood President had been hailed for his response to the 13 year old supporter in his club. In the wake of the first instance, he even shone the spotlight on politicians kicking around the asylum seeker fear football, arguing that:
“Politicians set the tone for the type of country that we will get and the voters go along with it. We all have to decide whether we’re going to be a red neck, hick country, or we are going to be a country that is very much involved in tolerance”.
The Magpie President had spoken with the 13 year old, and reported that she hadn’t understood that her “ape” comment had been racist. But Maguire understood it, which made for all the more warranted condemnation when he stumbled through his King Kong promotional suggestion of getting Goodes involved.
It must have sucked to be Adam Goodes last week. You spend the first few days after your game during Indigenous round – yep – explaining how parents and the wider community have a responsibility for teaching our children the values of respect, and then one of football’s most powerful men, who has on the surface been making all the right utterances, takes the offensive remarks to a new level on his popular breakfast radio program.
McGuire’s defence during what can only be described as a painful (to watch) press conference was that he was tired, it was a slip of the tongue, he knows it was wrong, he put his foot in it, and again, gee it was a terrible slip of the tongue.
Some of the commentary that followed the Maguire comments and apology asked deeper questions:
– In the Global Mail, Debra Jopson asked “who is going to apologise for Australia’s covert racism?” and pointed to Northern Territory Aboriginal activist Olga Havnen’s recent Lowitje O’Donohue lecture on ‘Healing the Fault lines: uniting politicians, bureaucrats and NGOs for improved outcomes in Aboriginal Health’ (a gap sadly highlighted this week with the passing of the lead singer of Yothu Yindi).
– Sam De Brito compared the situation with the treatment of racism in the United States, that in Australia we instead have the “Aussie “lite” version”. “We do not understand the anger, the shame, the frustration, the bitterness and sorrow of what was taken from indigenous Australians,” he wrote in his Fairfax column.
– Writing for the Conversation, Tom Heenan and David Dunstan looked at the this ‘casual’ side of racism that is often excused as a joke, and “given Australian Rules football is the most popular sport in the land, and McGuire one of the best known personalities, what does this tell us about wider Australian society’s approach to “jokes” involving race?”
– And in Overland journal, Jeff Sparrow argued:
“[Maguire’s] ‘King Kong’ remark deserves all the attention it has received, not because we should care about the state of his soul or the deep structures of his mind, but because if someone in his position can get away with racial invective, there will be consequences all down the line.”
But amongst the condemnation, critiques, questioning of our cultural attitudes and wider conversations that can only be worthwhile as having in this country, there were defenders of Team Eddie, and further evidence of what De Brito and Heenan and Dunstan write about in terms of Australia’s “casual” attitude towards racism.
Cue Eddie’s mate Sam Newman, a bloke who should have been pulled off our television years ago (from his ‘blackface’ dress up antics, to his abhorrent sexism), who defended Maguire’s comments as a “gaffe” made by “word association, nothing more”.
Talkback callers took to the issue with gusto. One caller to Mcguire’s show said “You can’t even say anything (without) people getting upset. Come on people cool down,” while another said, “I can’t believe the storm it’s caused,” she said. “You’re probably the least racist person I know.”
Anytime a member of the dominant culture tells someone to “lighten up” or “take a joke” or “cool down”, alarm bells should go off.
And they went off recently, after Mamamia founder Mia Freedman defended the Voice judge Delta Goodrem, who had re-tweeted a picture of Voice fans dressed up as the judges – including one with a ‘blackface’ as Seal (Goodrem wrote the accompanying message “That is hilarious!! Hope u had fun! Ha!!”).
In response to Goodrem being told that blackface is not funny, it’s racist, Freedman wrote:
“Stop this madness. PLEASE. WE. MUST. STOP. IT.” And “Does anyone truly believe Delta is racist? Or the guy dressed up as Seal? Come on.”
Broadcaster Meshel Laurie wrote a passionate rebuke of Freedman’s defence, also published on Mamamia, arguing:
“Australian racism doesn’t affect my employment opportunities, or my nights out. The media doesn’t ignore my problems, or those of my ancestral homeland… People don’t openly fear or mistrust me because of my color. I’m not followed in shops by anxious staff. Taxis don’t pull up at my house and then drive off when they see me walk towards them. No one tells their kids not to play with mine. No one worries I might be a terrorist.
“As a fortunate white woman, I don’t believe I have the right to decide what isn’t racist in Australia. I’m not the one hurt and belittled by it. Honestly, I find the telling of racial minorities that they are over reacting about racism demeaning.”
Also in response to Freedman, Sunili Govinnage wrote in Fairfax that:
“the biggest problem with comments like these is that every time people say that a racist joke or blackface dress-up is ‘hilarious’, and that being offended by it is “batshit crazy”, it delegitimises already marginalised voices against hurtful values and attitudes.
“By mentioning that she was “having one of those ‘has the world gone mad?’ moments”, Freedman suggested that being offended by racism is irrational and wrong.
“Her response to allegations of racism came in the same gaslighting formula used by some men to describe the ‘hysterical’ reaction of women to instances of innocuous-to-some sexism.”
Both Laurie and Govinnage’s arguments centred on the old notion that “only the oppressed understand oppression”.
When the Prime Minister Julia Gillard rose in parliament last year and delivered her “I will not be lectured on misogyny by that man” speech, directed at the Opposition Leader, she was accused of playing the ‘gender card’.
The media labeled it “desperate” (in both New Limited and Fairfax papers, here and here) (a word not unlike ‘hysterical’, as Giovannage acknowledges), while the Opposition Leader accused Gillard of playing the “victim card”.
Following the subsequent “gender card” accusations, the Prime Minister provided this reflection:
“I think it is actually a manifestation of deep sexism that you would say, that if a woman raises her voice, then that is her playing the victim, as opposed to her standing up for her rights.”
As with racism, we have a culture of ‘casual sexism’ in this country whereby it is often countered with doubts being cast on the level of offence caused and with the predictable ‘lighten up, it’s just a joke’ response.
It’s the same as when a straight person describes something as being ‘soooo gay’, and then defends this phrase by declaring “I’m not being homophobic, I’m just saying ‘it’s stupid’” (please, if you ever use this line, re-read it again and again until you figure it out).
In tackling one of the biggest indicators of gender inequality, US Anti violence campaigner Jackson Katz has proclaimed men’s violence against women a “men’s issue” (rather than the typical prism of seeing it as a ‘women’s issue’), because it’s the dominant culture that ultimately needs to change if we want to make serious inroads in addressing the issue.
“In the United States, when we hear the word ‘race’, people generally think of African Americans,” Katz said. “When people hear ‘sexual orientation’,they tend to think that means homosexual, gay, or lesbian. When people hear ‘gender’, they think of women.”
“In each, the dominate culture is left out of the equation. This is one way that dominant systems maintain themselves in that they are rarely challenged to think about their own dominance,” Katz said. “This is one of the key characteristics of power and privilege and why the dominant culture has ability to go unexamined and remain invisible.”
Dismissing casual racism, sexism, or any ‘ism’ as someone else’s issue to solve, or as being ‘just a joke’, does nothing to challenge or change the dominant culture – it just reinforces it.
Comedian Aamer Rahman, who initially highlighted the offence in Delta Goodrem’s re-tweet, neatly summarises this notion, that “normalising the casual mockery of people of colour through accepted mainstream culture – structurally preserving a white majority’s right to have fun at someone else’s expense – is a key building block in maintaining the hierarchy of racism.”
Message from Sarah, editor of Sheilas:
Sheila’s monthly email links subscribers to issues being covered in the media. It’s an e-publication, produced in between the major editions of ‘Sheilas’, published on www.sheilas.org.au. I have given No Fibs permission to publish the June email and encourage No Fibs readers to subscribe to Sheilas. Simply enter your email address into the ‘sign-up’ field on the website (www.sheilas.org.au) or email me and I will add you ([email protected]). It’s free!