The Politics    Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Adam Goodes debate is all about race

By Sean Kelly

The Adam Goodes debate is all about race
Andrew Bolt brandishing an imaginary spear at the author earlier this year.
What the right-wing commentariat gets wrong

Following the commentary on the Adam Goodes saga this week has been a bizarre experience.

The most obvious weirdness was watching commentators normally anguished by the imminent threat of terrorism, the perils of Islamic immigration, and the economic Armageddon about to be unleashed by various taxes – in other words, existential threats to the nation – decide that this week’s pressing issue was preserving the right to boo one particular player at AFL matches.

It’s easy to be flippant, but it’s an important question: why should this be such an important topic for national debate? In particular, why is the right-wing commentariat so exercised by it? So determined to show that the booers are alright? (Even if some now acknowledge the booing should probably stop.)

As I’ve read through the various bits of commentary I’ve noticed several recurring arguments. Looking beneath those arguments is useful: it can tell us about the foundations and assumptions this debate is built upon. I’ve tried to explain what I think those commentators are doing – as well as why they’re wrong.

1. “This is not about race”

Liberal frontbencher Jamie Briggs said: “It’s a football issue, and not an indigenous issue.” Rita Panahi wrote: “The failure of some to understand why Goodes is disliked leads them to conclude that it must be about race.” Again and again, those fighting for the rights of downtrodden booers everywhere argued that people disliked Goodes for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with race.

This is the most important rhetorical manoeuvre, because it is an attempt to shift the ground of the debate. Every political strategist knows this move: you don’t have to win the debate if you can shift the subject. Suddenly, the argument is not about whether the fans are racist, but about whether Adam Goodes has ever done anything that might reasonably upset people. And then, if you can find one thing that makes people nod their heads along with you, you’ve won.

This argument works fine as a single line. But when you’re forced to back it up – as Panahi tried to – it quickly becomes apparent that every single example you have involves race. Do you dislike Goodes because he pointed at the 13-year-old girl who called him an ape? Is it because of his comments about indigenous land? Or perhaps the spearthrowing? You know it’s a weak argument, because as soon as examples are given you see the reverse is true: this is all about race. 100%.

2. Goodes is “provocative”

Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett gave the game away when he said: “If he was white or non-indigenous and was conducting himself in the same way that he is, he would probably get the same reaction. It’s got nothing to do with his colour, his race. As good a player as he is … he is provocative.”

Well, sure. If Goodes was white and had talked openly about the racism he faced and complained about receiving an insult with a long heritage of being used against black people he probably would have been booed, because that would have been utterly ridiculous. Kennett disproves his own point as eloquently as Panahi disproves hers.

“Provocative” here is just a code word for “not knowing his place”. Jake Niall and Waleed Aly have made the point before, but it’s worth repeating: we are a tolerant country until we are faced with a member of a minority who is prepared to challenge our complacency.

The point here isn’t that crowds dislike Adam Goodes because he’s black: they dislike him because he talks about the fact that he’s black. And yes, that is still about race.

Incidentally, Andrew Bolt tries to meet this argument – “What a grotesque insult of all the other Aboriginal AFL players who haven’t been booed like that. Are they all Uncle Toms, then – even Nicky Winmar, Michael Long and Michael O’Loughlin?” – either forgetting or deliberately ignoring the huge backlash Long and Winmar faced at the time.

3. “There are 70 other indigenous players and they don’t get booed”

This is the equivalent of saying “Some of my best friends are Aboriginal”. Behaving decently in some situations doesn’t excuse all of the times you act terribly. It’s really just more proof of the “provocative” code: we’re fine with indigenous people as long as they don’t remind us about our privilege.

4. “Goodes is not the victim here”

Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Alan Jones and others have tried hard to argue that the main reason Goodes is “disliked” is his pointing to a 13-year-old girl who had called him an ape.

Routinely trotted out as an adjunct argument is the fact the girl was detained by police for several hours without her grandmother and sisters. That does sound awful. But that is not Goodes’ fault. Goodes is as powerless as the rest of us to tell the police what to do. Why is anybody holding him responsible for that?

We are also reminded that Goodes said, “Racism had a face – and it was a 13-year-old girl.”

But let’s look at the rest of that quote: “To be able to make a stand myself and say ‘racism has a face’ last night and, you know, it was a 13-year-old girl but it’s not her fault. She's 13, she's still so innocent, I don’t put any blame on her. Unfortunately it’s what she hears, the environment she’s grown up in that has made her think it’s okay to call people names. I can guarantee you right now she would have no idea, you know, how it makes anyone feel by calling them an ape … But I think the person that needs the most support is the little girl, you know. People need to get around her, she's 13, she’s uneducated.”

Not quite the harsh quote some people want to pretend it is.

But mostly what this recurring meme reminded me of was a quote from US writer Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Racism tends to attract attention when it’s flagrant and filled with invective. But like all bigotry, the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping –positioning the bigot as the actual victim. So the gay do not simply want to marry, they want to convert our children into sin … This is a respectable, more sensible, bigotry, one that does not seek to name-call, preferring instead [to] change the subject and strawman. Thus segregation wasn’t necessary to keep the niggers in line, it was necessary to protect the honour of white women.

By shifting the argument, away from Goodes and towards the 13-year-old, commentators achieve a subtle but powerful effect: suddenly, this is not about protecting Goodes from racism, but about protecting a 13-year-old girl from bullying. Once again, racism has been erased from the picture by a neat rhetorical trick.

And that’s before we get into the absurdity of asking Goodes to apologise for pointing out that he was being racially abused.

5. “Goodes is rich and powerful”

This is usually used in conjunction with number 4. As Devine writes: “He was a rich, powerful, 33-year-old elite sportsman; she was a defenseless, underprivileged child.”

The suggestion seems to be that Adam Goodes is not allowed to call out racism because he is rich and powerful.

This is a poisonously insidious argument. On the surface, there is a ring of common sense to it: how can somebody powerful be the subject of bullying?

But if powerful indigenous people are not permitted to call out racism, then who on Earth is going to? The indigenous Australians living in third-world conditions in remote communities?

It’s a circular argument with horrific results: if you are not powerful, you can speak, but nobody will listen. If you are powerful, you cannot possibly be a victim, so you can speak, but nobody will believe you.

This is how minorities are silenced altogether.

Looking through those recurring rhetorical devices, one repeated aim jumps out: the desperate effort to argue that race is of little consequence in Australia, and to sideline those members of minorities willing to argue otherwise.

So, yes, we should have the argument about booing. We should get behind Adam Goodes. It would be a terribly sad thing if Adam Goodes’ career were to end this week, at the height of a messy, histrionic and divisive debate.

But we should not allow the surface of that debate to conceal the much greater stakes that lie just beneath: our ability as a nation to have an honest conversation about race. To be able to pause for a moment when somebody suggests racism might play a role in our national life, and consider what that means, rather than coating ourselves in reflexive outrage. To listen when the few indigenous people with a public voice explain the challenges they face.

If we cannot even have this conversation simply and honestly, what chance do we have as a nation of ever addressing indigenous suicide, infant mortality, or incarceration rates? This week it seems none at all.


Today’s links

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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