Wading into the racist mire

During a week of the most heinous race-based madness that started with the thoughtless bleatings of a foolish 13-year-old and ended – if indeed it has ended – with the unthinkably careless on-air comments of Collingwood President Eddie McGuire, a traipse through the various social media platforms would never end well.

So it proved.

All along I’d avoided writing much about racism beyond a few from-the-hip Twitter laments on the unfathomably lazy state of the white Australian psyche, but if anything was going to tip me into the collective race-based blog-dom, it was this Facebook humdinger:

Eddie’s comment wasn’t racist. Apes aren’t black or white. He was having a go at his looks, not the colour of his skin. And he’s not the only footy player who could be likened to an ape – the clubs are full of them.

You see it’s not about Adam Goodes’ offence, or a spotlight beaming in on current and historical indigenous issues – health, mortality rates, employment, social dislocation for instance – or a broader blowtorch on a poor national track record on race relations.

No.

It’s about ape aesthetics.

If the issue was Russia, this bloke just showed us Argentina.

He wasn’t alone of course. There are thousands of similarly ham-fisted reflections everywhere. Plenty took an axe to the victim by transposing a duck where an ape once was and suggesting vitriolic water should fairly scoot over the former’s back. Others barked ‘media beat up’. Most responses contained that doozy of a catch-all about ‘political correctness gone mad’, a phrase akin to tossing clean clothes back in the Fisher & Paykel because you couldn’t be bothered hanging them on the line. So many avoided, or missed, or were entirely unaware of the central point that an ape symbolises a less evolved human, a grotesque colonialist white man gibe that has and always will remain loaded with racist intent.

Justifications. Rationalisations. Deflections. Everywhere.

And as the days ticked over, the guts of an issue – why racism is so poorly understood in Australia – was slowly shelved under the weight of side dishes.

Eddie’s grim face. A young girl and her telephoned contrition. Whether or not a club Presidency would or could be removed. An AFL mediation process. Whether Goodesy would or wouldn’t play. Whether Collingwood’s season was now derailed. And all to a soundtrack  of public wailing fed in no small part by the opinions of paid tabloid ideologues whose purpose, it seemed, was to satiate flabby, disconnected minds.

But the fact remains bare. We have a problem. It’s out there.

Some of the xenophobic filth belched from an otherwise perfectly normal-looking fence-leaner at my local ground a few weeks back nearly made my ears bleed. Thankfully a club official called him into line.

Perhaps this stuff leaches upwards.

I think of wince-inducing tirades heaped on St Kilda’s Raphael Clarke about being beneficiary of a race quota selection system when he was pinged for holding the ball early in the 2009 AFL Grand Final; of once-Demon Jeff Farmer’s likeness to a ‘fuckin’ chimpanzee’’ from the mouth of a badge-wearing MCC member; of North Melbourne’s Lindsay Thomas’s goal-kicking yips being the direct result of his ‘faulty abo genes’.

And then, in the lead up to this week, of Sudanese-born Majak Daw copping it not just once, but twice. And on consecutive weekends.

It is pure cowardice. It is juvenile. It is totally putrid.

But to condemn it cold is to overlook the fact that perhaps these utterances often stem from an emotion-charged subconscious fog. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I remain convinced that however fleeting, there’s almost always an overhanging shame left in their wake. Certainly, Eddie McGuire – a man whose heart is significantly better placed than his mouth would have us think – would be feeling it now. Surely, too, that young girl would feel the deepest regret post fact. No doubt most perpetrators would feel awfully small if their actions were replayed in the media ad finitum.

Perhaps it’s the lack of an initial firewall that irks most. We know what will cause the utmost offence. We cause it with ne-er a thought. If no natural inkling to simply not, then at least, surely, to refrain. Instead we aim for the point likely to provoke the most telling reaction and we shoot callously. Fearlessly, even.

And it’s not just sport. I think of my in-laws, rag-traders for the most part, and their experiences with ‘those’ cheating, shyster, untrustworthy, unscrupulous Jewish, Chinese and Indian businesspeople who consumed too much of their working lives. Of my own upbringing in Sydney and the general disquiet at the temerity of a Vietnamese population to descend upon the white middle-class sanctity of Chatswood. Of a family friend – a hugely successful IT executive, a smart, driven, educated woman – and her curled lip at immigrant cabbies and those disgraceful slanty-eyed drivers who simply can’t watch where they’re going. Of my youth and the invisible schoolyard line between the Aussies and the rest. Most grew out of that. Way too many don’t.

This stuff remains real. It’s everywhere, everyday.

During the week, Collingwood player Harry O’Brien talked of the casualisation of racism. I agree with him, too. So many of us have spent so much time comforted by the giggles and sniggers of equally muddle-headed peers that they’ve forgotten how to think with any purity.

But we’re not racist, we’ll say. We’re just joking. It’s just sledging. What goes on the field stays there. Harden the f-ck up. It’s not what I say. It’s the way you interpret what I said. Just let it slide. This is a storm in a teacup. Surely there’s more important things to bang on about?

If we possessed even a vague ability for introspection, we’d quickly realise the issue isn’t about crafting a convenient reaction to racism.

Instead, we’d understand that the reaction – the hurt, the utter dismay, the deep-rooted familial grief, the exasperated rage – is fuelled by something that is always there, that our defensiveness about pricking it is hopelessly childish, and that now, finally, it’s probably about bloody time we quit being so petty when our collective whiteness is called to account.

About mattwebberwrites

I write about sport and other things. I'm a dad and a husband. I regularly do the broadcast thing on 91.7 ABC Gold Coast. I like weird guitars and wacky fuzz pedals. My tweet to follower ratio is poor, but improving. The St Kilda Football Club is my seductress. She kills me daily. Surfing helps.
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