Thursday, May 30, 2013

I am not a racist, but…

Little did we expect the storm that would erupt during the AFL’s Indigenous Round last weekend. Thoughtless remarks yelled by a 13-year-old at one of the games most celebrated and decorated Indigenous players, Sydney’s Adam Goodes, sparked opprobrium from all quarters. Some have expressed reservations because the term “ape” has been bandied around in sport for years, not being limited as a term of abuse for Indigenous players. However, the deeper history of the term is deeply insulting, a history which is clearly relevant when applied to Indigenous players and people of African heritage.

The response of Collingwood President Eddie McGuire on the night was nothing short of exemplary. He made his way immediately to the Sydney rooms, seeking clarification about what had been said, and offering unreserved apologies to Goodes. Counselling and support for the perpetrator was offered, seeking education rather than punishment. Goodes magnanimously but correctly highlighted that a 13-year-old is a product of her environment, reflecting attitudes she has picked up from around her. In this sense she is a symbol of attitudes which run deep in our community. Just how deep took a few days to unfold.

Yesterday’s comments by Eddie McGuire on air were both a shock and an embarrassment. Not only to Eddie, but to us all. His linking of King Kong to Adam Goodes, while a clumsy attempt at something, and probably an association made stronger in his mind by the events of the weekend, was inexcusable. All Eddie’s good work in response to Friday night was undone with a careless remark on air. Eddie highlighted how deeply racism runs through our community. There is no way of avoiding the conclusion that deep within us all there is a racist streak. It calls to mind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

It is evident in responses of callers on talkback. “I’m not a racist, but…”

None of us like to think we are racist, least of all me. And yet… surely when I make a point of ensuring that an Indigenous person is not left standing alone at a gathering, I am responding because of their race? When I see someone whose culture is obviously different, I make a point of smiling and saying hello. At the heart of my response is the race of the person. While I am seeking to offer welcome and hospitality, am I still not treating them differently because of their race?And I am not immune from the occasional moment when I think of a funny comment or observation which is racist at its heart.

It is easy to point the finger at another and highlight their failings. It is so much more difficult to recognise and affirm that those failings are not far from the surface in our own life and attitudes. It is at the heart of the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Such thoughts cross all our minds from time to time.

We have come a long way in addressing racism in our community, and in our own lives. But the job is still a long way from being complete. It would be easy to make scapegoats out of this episode rather than own a problem which is still deep in our community, and in us all.

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