Opinion: Lessons Learned From the Otis Carey and Adam Goodes Sagas

6 Aug 2015 40 Share

Jock Serong

Senior Writer

Otis, like Goodes, is proud of his Indigenous lineage Photo: Onorati

Otis, like Goodes, is proud of his Indigenous lineage Photo: Onorati

Jock Serong is a Senior Writer at Surfing World Magazine

On the surface of it, the ordeals endured by dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes, a senior AFL footballer, and Otis Carey, a semi-famous Sydney freesurfer, have little in common. Yes, both men are Aborigines. Both complained of racist treatment and both found themselves the subject of public debate. But surely these are different sports, different states, different circumstances. To thread them together would be to generalise, and generalising is the cardinal sin in discussions of race, isn’t it?

To recap, in March 2014, Otis Carey took part in a feature story with Nathan Myers for Surfing Life magazine. In the course of the editorial, Myers chose to use words which do not bear repeating. The reference was unmistakably racial, and was baffling in the context of an otherwise innocuous write-up. The publisher – ordinarily the safety valve in such instances – went ahead and published. Carey sought a retraction and ultimately got one: but he also got a whole lot of wounded justification, some of it public, which served only to compound the insult. He threatened to sue and ultimately did, and was publicly shamed for doing so. The case settled. The Daily Telegraph repeated Myers’ comments in full, taking them from the – let’s be honest with ourselves – limited circulation of the surfing media into a mass-circulation city daily. Carey sued again. The vitriol mounted even higher.

“And this is what was changing: the preference of unthinking racists, so neatly expressed by McAlister, was for Aborigines to keep it nice. Know your place and if you must be a victim then do it quietly. After all, it’s hard for us to pity you if you’re back-chatting us.”

Let’s turn from there to look at Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes. Goodes is an Adnyamathanha man: his mother, and eight of her siblings, were members of the stolen generations. As a child, he witnessed the alcoholism, violence and existential pain that comes with that label. But somehow he rose to compile one of the most extraordinary resumes in football history: a dual premiership player, dual Brownlow medallist, indigenous games record holder and All-Australian, and then, leaping clear out of football into wider society, Australian of the Year.

His brilliance drew ever-more vicious abuse from over the fence, until in May 2013 he stopped play and pointed out a Collingwood supporter who had called him an ape. That spectator, it emerged, was a 13-year-old girl. Although the girl later apologised, Goodes was condemned in some quarters – including by the girl’s mother – for what was perceived to be an act of bullying. Days after the incident, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire compounded the odium on radio by trying for an incalculably stupid joke off the back of the girl’s comment. He also later apologised, but the damage was done.

Somewhere around that time, maybe before and maybe after, people started booing Goodes when he went near the ball. And he goes near the ball a lot, so in a short time it amounted to a torrent, an audible wave of mass-hatred lifting from the stands. Goodes responded by playing ever-better football. He also responded in May this year by celebrating a goal with a dance – undoubtedly indigenous, maybe war-like, maybe also a dance he was taught by an indigenous youth group he was working with. For those who sought the space to hate, it was unequivocal: he’s threatening us with violence. The booing intensified ten-fold. And it came to a point where Goodes withdrew himself from the game as the psychological pressure bore down upon him.

So let’s see if there’s an underlying unity here, or if the grievances of Goodes and Carey and those who support them are nothing more than straight-up vending machine political correctness.

I suspect the common ground between Carey and Goodes traces back to something Collingwood football President Allan McAlister said in 1993. Something along the lines of “if only they (Aboriginal players) would conduct themselves like white people, they’d be fine.” McAlister did not mean he wanted “them” to actually resemble white people – what he wanted was for indigenous players to play their widely-admired brand of football, but otherwise make themselves invisible. Passive, silent and enduring. Just get on with it, and other than when you have a footy in your hands (or a board under your feet), don’t remind us of the differences.

Photo: Mark Onorati

Photo: Mark Onorati

The McAlister doctrine was turned on its head by two seismic events in the footballing world.

I was lucky enough to be witness to the first of them, at Victoria Park on grim day in the winter of 1993 when St Kilda taught a listless Collingwood a football lesson on their own (widely feared) home ground, Victoria Park. Best on ground for the Saints was one Nicky Winmar, streaking up and down the grandstand wing in front of the rabid Collingwood faithful, who vented their disgust with wild-eyed intensity. What leverage could they exert against him, this man who was apparently inexhaustible and unstoppable, other than his race? They gave it to him with despicable fervor.

And so, at the end of the day, Winmar walked quietly over to the grandstand boundary and stopped  – serendipitously in the only ray of sunshine for the entire day – lifted his jumper and pointed to his skin. The simplest and most articulate response one could possibly devise, even with weeks or months or years to compose it. Of course, Winmar had had a lifetime to come up with that. The crowd roared and bellowed in rage and disbelief: they had been outdone: thwarted between the sirens and after them by this black man.

The second event was on Anzac Day 1995 at the MCG. Essendon player Michael Long, after suffering the racist abuse of Collingwood ruckman Damien Monkhorst all day, did what no other senior player to that point had done: he called it out and triggered a process of official intervention, punishment and ultimately reconciliation when Monkhorst, to his credit, found it within himself to understand and to apologise. That sequence of events later helped launch Long’s breakthrough gesture, the “Long Walks” in support of reconciliation.

And this is what was changing: the preference of unthinking racists, so neatly expressed by McAlister, was for Aborigines to keep it nice. Know your place and if you must be a victim then do it quietly. After all, it’s hard for us to pity you if you’re back-chatting us.

“A lifetime of privileged acceptance blunts the edge of the insults: the same insults that are made razor-sharp by a lifetime of denigration.”

Up to that point, Aboriginal athletes were known more for grace under fire than for firing back. Cathy Freeman, Evonne Goolagong, Lionel Rose, even back to Eddie Gilbert: the viewing public and the athlete had reached a rapprochement whereby excellence was grudgingly acknowledged as long as it didn’t come with attitude. And yet here they were, talking back. And not only that, but stepping outside the bounds of passive acceptance by demonstrating pride.

Conservative commentators such as Andrew Bolt, and attention-seeking fools such as Jason Akermanis, use a reflexive argument to defend the racist abuse of Aboriginal people. It goes like this: “you chose to draw attention to yourself and to the abuse. If you’d just remained silent, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.”

In the cases of both Goodes and Carey, this argument has been buttressed with an additional limb: “you not only drew attention to yourself, but to the perpetrator of the abuse. You brought damnation on them, and for that you should apologise.” In Carey’s case, the perpetrators were a surf journalist, and the longstanding Australian surf mag for which he wrote: a publication which could be financially endangered by Carey’s demand that they be held to account. In Goodes’s case, the perpetrator was a 13-year-old girl. In both instances, a not-so-subtle shifting of blame turns the bullied into the bully.

Which brings us to the other commonality between Goodes and Carey. Both have been accused of being “thin-skinned”. C’mon, goes the logic, you’re a public figure. You’re a professional athlete. “You’ve got to get over some of this stuff,” says Andrew Bolt, pointing out that he’s been the victim of his share of online vitriol from what he terms “the racism industry.”

So is he right? Could it be that plenty of white people cop abuse and learn to play through, and that prominent Aborigines should learn to do the same?

As the controversy over Goodes raged on, the ABC’s 7:30 Report put Bolt head-to-head with indigenous Darwin journalist Charlie King. It was a predictable dead heat – two people passionately convinced of their own position, interrupting each other. That is, until King put the shoe on the other foot:

“Andrew, can I ask you …to do this, and the viewers as well? Put yourself in Adam Goodes' position. You're the one gooda in there, you're the one white person in a whole Aboriginal side that has all Aboriginal spectators sitting in the crowd. Mostly, all the commentators are Aboriginal people, all the newspaper writers are Aboriginal people and you are the one white person in the side and you're trying to do the best you can for your people. You want to show them that you can compete, where you're in the minority and you want to do a good job and you celebrate with a little bit of a dance and then they turn on you and then they start calling you names like monkey and ape comparing you to King Kong. How would you feel with that, Andrew? And I wonder how our viewers would feel if they sat in that position and looked at the world through the eyes of Aboriginal people.”

And suddenly you can see as clear as day the answer to the rhetorical question so often put by the casual racist: why are they so sensitive? Because a lifetime of privileged acceptance blunts the edge of the insults: the same insults that are made razor-sharp by a lifetime of denigration.

American activist Ta-Nehisi Coates has written extensively about the case for reparations to African Americans for the historical and contemporary misdeeds they’ve suffered. In many ways, his analysis is years ahead of the Australian debate, and yet closely analogous to what we’re going through (find his new book, Between the World and Me - it’s extraordinary). Writing in The Atlantic last year, Coates framed the pain of racist insult in these terms -

“…if you understand racism as the headwaters of the problem, as injury, as plunder, you can reorient and focus not on the ancestry but on the injury.”

It’s an elegant shorthand for what King was saying: to understand how much this behaviour hurts an Aborigine, you need to do the hard work, to get inside an Aboriginal life and see the context; the accretion of years of exclusion and belittlement and denial, of being outnumbered and spoken over, to appreciate that words have an edge to them. Even the barbarous idiocies of the outfield. 

Tags: op-ed , opinion , jock , serong , otiscarey , adamgoodes , topnews (create Alert from these tags)

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