Tip of the hat, wag of the finger

Riordan Lee explores racism in the Australian Football League

Adam Goodes says he was "gutted" and couldn't celebrate the Sydney Swans' win because of a 13 year old girls racist comment
Adam Goodes says he was "gutted" and couldn't celebrate the Sydney Swans' win because of a 13 year old girls racist comment
Adam Goodes says he was “gutted” and couldn’t celebrate the Sydney Swans’ win because of a 13 year old girl’s racist comment

On Friday the 24th of May, a thirteen-year old girl at the MCG called one of the AFL’s greatest ever Indigenous players, Adam Goodes, “an ape”. That’s as harrowing a sentence to write as it is to read. The response from the AFL community and even the young girl has been genuinely moving and shows just how far as a code, and as a society, we’ve progressed. Still, there remains an unsettling feature in how the conversation about racism is framed in Australia. It’s often dismissed as a function of ‘ignorance’, with bigots simply needing more ‘education’ – but even a cursory peek into a Republican cabinet meeting or a Paul’s annual dinner makes it painfully evident education and privilege is no cure.

When Andrew Johns called Greg Inglis a “black cunt” in 2010 he apologised, stating he “looked forward to sitting down…and learning from him what is acceptable.” You know, because how could he have possibly known “black cunt” would be offensive without the requisite historical background knowledge? What’s too often neglected is the recognition that racial vilification comes not just from a place of ignorance, but deliberate and intentioned malice. Whilst perhaps we can make exceptions for this teenager, the excuse of ignorance dismisses racism as little more than a knowledge-gap, rather than a deplorable and deliberate attempt to vilify. Its purpose is to demean, shame and isolate. This is why Goodes left the field instead of celebrating a season-defining victory, this is why racial taunts are so pernicious and destructive.

I play AFL for the University, one of a handful of Asian players in what still remains an overwhelmingly Anglo sport.

Sure, the lingering awareness you’re kind of different is always there, but this isn’t necessarily negative and frankly, race has largely been a non-issue. There have been three times in five years where I’ve been racially abused by an opposition, and I know it’s three because to this day, I can vividly recall each incident. They inspired a unique type of pain – one deeply belittling, unspeakably infuriating and utterly humiliating.

Behind the fierce competition and hypermacho posturing in sports, lies a deep-seated sense of camaraderie and community – but vilification, of any kind, destroys the very fabric of the code, isolating and debasing those within it. This is why Goodes’ actions on the boundary line of the MCG were so important – his composed defiance showed even in the most degrading of moments, one can find dignity and pride.