An American expat explains the Adam Goodes controversy and Australia's problem with racism

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This is Adam Goodes. If you’re not Australian, you’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s one of the most accomplished football players in the Australian Football League. He’s twice won the Brownlow Medal, which is the award given to the best and fairest player in the league at the close of each season. He’s also won two AFL Premierships with his football club, the Sydney Swans. In 2014, Goodes was awarded the prestigious Australian of the Year award, which recognises outstanding contributions to Australian communities and culture, or individual achievements. Its recipients epitomise the Australian ideals, and serve as role models for the rest of their countrymen.

So Adam Goodes sounds like a really terrible guy, right? Well, if recent history were taken into account, one would certainly think so. Earlier this year, during the AFL’s Indigenous Round, which is dedicated to recognising and celebrating Australian Indigenous culture in football, Goodes performed an Aboriginal war dance after kicking a goal for his side. After booting the goal, he danced toward the stands, which happened to be filled with supporters of the opposing club, and simulated what some considered to be “threatening” gestures, including throwing an imaginary spear. Goodes was immediately subjected to a barrage of hateful ridicule, and has been vehemently “booed” by football crowds in every game since.

So here we have one of the greatest champions of this quintessentially Australian sport, twice the recipient of its highest honour, and once the recipient of one of the nation’s highest honours, being subjected week after week to the hateful heckling of hideous throngs of footy-goers. And why? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

One of the biggest social debates in Australia right now is whether the incessant booing of Adam Goodes is racially motivated, or whether the crowds are booing him for other reasons. And this is where Australian political and cultural history comes squarely into play.

See, unlike its close neighbour New Zealand, whose Caucasian settlers struck a treaty with the natives and assimilated relatively peacefully with the indigenous locals, the settlers who annexed Australia took a decidedly different approach. They culled the Aboriginals, killed them, sometimes by the thousands, stole their land, stole their livelihoods, and even stole their children. For 200 years after settlement, they subjugated the Aboriginals, denying them basic human rights (indeed, even outrightly denying that they were human at all until the mid-twentieth century), and relegating them to lives of impoverished insignificance. The wrongs that the white Australian has committed to its indigenous ancestors are many and harrowing. Those wrongs are also something that the white Australian public takes great discomfort in acknowledging. And this is where Adam Goodes danced himself into their bad graces.

Culturally ingrained

Adam Goodes is an indigenous leader, and a well-respected role model for the wider Aboriginal community. He is also an outspoken advocate for Aboriginal rights, and does not shy away from calling attention to the social inequalities of modern Australian society. When he received his 2014 Australian of the Year award, he used the platform to call attention to social injustices directed toward his people. Naturally, this didn’t sit well with the white majority. Throw in a blatantly Aboriginal goal celebration during an AFL game, and the man who should be a hero is suddenly vilified.

I’ve lived in Australia for ten years now as an American expat. One thing I’ve learned about my adopted home is that its problem with racism is similar in many ways to America’s problem with guns: it is so endemic and culturally ingrained that its perpetrators and propagators can’t even see that it’s a problem. Whereas histrionic Americans rage that there are all sorts of reasons for the thousands of American gun-related deaths every year except guns, Australians so vehemently deny that racism affects its national character. This is the root of the Adam Goodes controversy.

It is a fact that Adam Goodes gets booed horrendously at football games because of his race. It is also a fact that many people out there who boo Adam Goodes are not doing it with the intention of racially vilifying him. While these two facts seem diametrically opposed, they can and do coexist. However, the people booing at these football games need to understand that, irrespective of their intentions, they are contributing to racial vilification nonetheless.

Goodes was never booed before the Indigenous Round this year (that is, no more so than any other player in the normal course of play). His post-goal war dance brought it on, and the booing is now incessant. It sustains through the entire game every week, and every time he touches the ball. Some people say they boo him because of his style of play: he’s flamboyant, he “stages” for free kicks, and let’s not forget that he celebrates goals in an indigenous manner during rounds specifically set out to celebrate indigenous culture. In Aussie terms, they boo him because “he’s a flog”. But the game is rife with players who do exactly these things, and those players don’t get booed. Hayden Ballantyne of the Fremantle Dockers is one of the most hated football players in the entire AFL, and while he has certainly been booed at times, he has never been booed the way Adam Goodes gets booed now. Joel Selwood, Brent Harvey, Jack Riewoldt, Luke Hodge, Dustin Martin, none of them get booed to this extent either, despite displaying the same sort of antics on a regular basis. Why do you suppose that is?

Some say they boo him because of an incident in 2013 when he had a 13 year-old girl ejected from an AFL match after she called him an “ape” from the crowd. They say he shouldn’t have singled her out that way, and that his reaction was overly harsh and unfair to such a young girl. Now, leaving aside the fact that this kind of victim-blaming is akin to shaming a rape victim for wearing revealing clothing or drinking alcohol or, you know, walking home, this argument is also BS. Firstly, that girl needed to be taught a lesson that she clearly wasn’t being taught at home. While it’s unfortunate that someone so young was singled out for such behavior, blaming Goodes for speaking out against blatantly racist taunts climbs to new heights of absurdity. Secondly, Goodes was not booed in this manner for the remainder of the 2013 season or the 2014 season, even after highlighting indigenous issues and speaking out about racism in his 2014 Australian of the Year acceptance speech. He has only been booed with this kind of vitriol after performing his war dance early in 2015. So this argument, again, holds no water.

I’m not trying to be cute, but this issue is pretty black and white. Goodes didn’t get booed to this extent before he did the Aboriginal war dance. He’s been caustically booed in every game since. So any argument that this kind of booing has to do with anything other than race is false and pathetic.

Australia, you have a problem with racism. A big one. And it runs deep. The problem with racists is that they genuinely don’t believe themselves to be racists. During round 17 of the AFL fixture, a fan supporting the West Coast Eagles was ejected from Domain Stadium in Perth for yelling at Goodes to “go back to the zoo”. Upon being questioned about the incident, the fan defended his actions as being part and parcel of the game. He genuinely believed that what he said wasn’t racist in any way, but rather, he’d been singled out by the Political Correctness Police. And this is why racism is such a deep-rooted problem. People seem to think that unless they’re blatantly shouting “n—-r” or “coon”, they have carte blanche to say anything else that comes to mind. But you don’t. Take a good, hard look at yourselves, Australia. Before you can start to fix a problem, you first need to admit that you have one. A nation that based its foreign policy on a near century-long program literally called “White Australia” certainly has cause to own up to it.

I do believe that some people genuinely boo Goodes for reasons other than his race. Some may find it part of the fun of being in the crowd and joining in a movement against a star player of an opposing team. Some fans have never liked him because of his style of play. But those people must acknowledge that, regardless of their intent, they are propagating an act that is rooted in the racial vilification of another human being. It’s not okay. It’s not all in good fun. This brand of booing is not part of the game. And yes, you are contributing to racism.

Robbie Blowers is a legal practitioner based in Melbourne.

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