Earlier this week, 2014 Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, spoke to BBC’s Hardtalk programme*, and spent some time talking about the issue of racism in Australia. Goodes is an Australian Rules footballer who has played for several years and is undeniably an excellent player. However, perhaps the most famous incident of his career came at a football match where he was racially abused by a thirteen year old girl in the crowd.
In the interview with the BBC, Goodes explains that racial taunts and jokes become a source of pain for those who are subjected to them, and that the reason he called on the girl to be pulled up on the racial slur is because we have to put a stop to it. When she later apologised, he accepted her apology and saw it as a way to highlight the problem and educate people about it.
Goodes details in particular, the problem of casual racism. In a very measured way, he explains the difficulties faced by minority groups in a country where stereotypes are constantly reinforced. However, his statements about the realities of being a person of colour in modern Australia upset radio DJ, Neil Mitchell (the comments are awful, but, well, this is the internet after all). Mitchell accused Goodes of not liking Australia. What other reason must he have to criticise it?
But it’s very clear that Goodes does like it here. He has a strong cultural heritage and a connection to his Aboriginal roots. He is proud to be an Australian. He was awarded Australian of the Year this year based on his work as a campaigner against racism. He clearly wants Australia to be a better place for everyone, not just for the lucky few who have the ‘right’ coloured skin.
Mitchell’s reactions to Goodes’ observations are, however, quite common. When confronted with the idea that our country is racist, that not everyone might have the same benefits and rights as others, many of those who take those benefits for granted go on the defensive. It’s not that bad! It’s way better than it used to be! We’re embarrassed that our image of an accepting, easygoing nation might be tarnished. We don’t want people to think that we might be racist, like all those other countries overseas. We had perhaps hoped that we were better.
But I think we’ve only been allowed to get away with that arrogant sense of superiority because those who have been the target of racist taunts and jokes have remained silent. Goodes explains that in the face of this abuse
“You become quite tolerant, because if you don’t, you become very angry. […] With violence, with drinking, with drugs… People don’t understand how much racial abuse can hurt people.”
Chris Graham from New Matilda wrote an excellent article in response to both Goodes’ interview and the Mitchell reaction, detailing the ways in which non-Indigenous Australians might be able to confront some of the issues Goodes raises, and appreciate his perspective. One of the points raised in Graham’s article is the idea of non-Indigenous Australians feeling resentful for having to ‘say sorry.’ I think that Mitchell’s reaction, and that of many white Australians when the casual racism in this country is highlighted, is that of guilt or shame. We resent that. We realise that there have been many terrible acts done both in the distant and recent past, and we push back against a sense of collective responsibility for them, because we weren’t really responsible.
The point is not to feel guilty, it is to make changes now. We can’t change what happened yesterday or fifty years ago, or two hundred years ago, yet we still don’t live in an equal society However, we are responsible for what happens today, As Goodes quite calmly points out, it’s about education, and about acknowledgement. We don’t need to feel guilty. We need to simply make changes with how we treat each other, and demand that our government also represent us in that way.
All that is required is empathy, and a commitment to changing our attitudes. When you consider all the wrongs which have been brought on Indigenous people in our country, not to mention the racism which is also directed towards other non-white groups, accepting the past and committing to a better future is really not that difficult, is it?
Goodes argues that in Australia we have accepted casual racism for too long, and that it is up to the individual to change that. But Goodes also acknowledges that Aboriginal people also must look to the future instead of the past. “We can’t,” he says, “keep thinking, poor us, poor us.[…] Life is all about actions and interactions and that’s why racism stops with me.”
What I enjoyed most about listening to Goodes’ interview was his pragmatism. The anger and disappointment he feels due to the way in which Indigenous people are treated in Australia is obvious, but he accepts that anger and disappointment are not going to change anything. Yet he believes that people can change, and that he has seen that happen. When we pull people up on racist comments, they stop. They think about what they said. What will change our attitudes is all of us, in small ways. We need to stand up to casual racism, to question the stereotypes. We need to realise that by not questioning the status quo or calling people out on racist jokes or judgements that we’re perpetuating the discrimination.
Goodes ends the interview by talking about the legacy he would like to leave. As much as he enjoys playing football and appreciates the opportunities he’s had, he says that, “If I become the world’s best father, the world’s best son-in-law, that’ll sit quite comfortably… I really hope when I die… it says, Adam Goodes, father of ten.”
To which I say: Adam Goodes, I really respect everything you have to say about the state of race relations in our country but WTF TEN CHILDREN. No, really: start with four and see how you go from there.
*This interview is just under half an hour long and is great. It’s only up for a few more days so if you’re keen to listen I’d do it quickly.