Indigenous Australia

Adam Goodes and the AFL's 'enlightened racism'

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The reaction to Adam Goodes' traditional celebratory dance is just the obvious expression of a very strong thread of racism still running through elite sport in Australia, including the supposedly 'enlightened' AFL. Trevor Grant reports.

Adam Goodes is at it again.

The black boy who simply refuses to know his place in white Australia has poked a big stick into a nest of red ants by daring to express his Aboriginality through the most traditional Aboriginal expression of all.

His vigorous stomping and arm-twirling in the direction of opposition fans after his goal in last weekend’s "Indigenous round" match against Carlton was a reprise of a war dance recently performed by a young Aboriginal representative team in a lower profile arena. It was a harmless, rehearsed bit of celebration meant to attract attention and, predictably, it did, with the Sydney Swan veteran lectured about his “aggression” by affronted AFL commentators.

Since the AFL’s most celebrated Indigenous footballer made his very public complaint about racist abuse from a 13-year-old female Collingwood fan in 2013, he has become a target of opposition fans throughout the competition. He is booed regularly and often during games in what amounts to a cowardly expression of racism by people using the cover of crowd anonymity. During last year’s Grand Final, Hawthorn fans took it to a new level, causing an outcry in a sport that has been front and centre for years in declaring itself against the evils of racism.

Much has been written about the motives behind these attacks upon Goodes, who was named Australian Of The Year in 2014, but at its heart is white Australia’s discomfort with a black man getting beyond his station.

Goodes is a man who, no matter how much he might be welcomed into the white man’s tent, speaks his mind about the treatment of his people. He dares talk about his mother being a victim of the Stolen Generations. He uses his access to mainstream media to applaud, and recommend, IA contributor John Pilger’s confronting documentary about Aboriginal disadvantage, Utopia, while the same media does its best to ignore it. He acknowledges the right of his people to declare January 26 as "Invasion Day", not Australia Day.

In doing all this from such a visible platform, he makes white Australia confront one of it’s deepest fears, which is having to jettison two centuries of denial and deal with its past and current crimes against the original inhabitants of this land.

It must be said that many high-ranking AFL officials are shocked and appalled to hear those persistent boos directed at Goodes. They dearly want to believe they have conquered racism in their sport through embracing Indigenous culture and actively promoting it through such events as last week’s “Indigenous Round”.

However, there is a school of thought that it reflects the reality — that there is a very strong thread of racism still running through all elite sport, the only thing that has changed is that it is expressed in a different way in the 21st Century.

The new expression has a label – “enlightened racism”  -- which originated in the United States and has been taken up by a Melbourne academic, Barry Judd, an RMIT associate professor whose research into football and racism comes from the perspective of  a footy fan (Hawthorn), a footy parent (regular Auskick appearances) and, perhaps most importantly, an Indigenous person.

Judd and fellow academic, Monash University Associate Professor Chris Hallinan, explored the idea of enlightened racism after a U.S. study several years ago looked at the 1990s popular TV comedy, The Cosby Show.

“The Cosby show depicted an African American family who were very middle class, very educated, the kind of people you might like to have living next door to you,” Judd said. (This is well before the show’s central figure, Bill Cosby, was publicly outed as an alleged serial sexual abuser of women.)

Judd continued:

The idea of enlightened racism is that white America would like all African-Americans to be just like the Cosby family. We adapted this concept to Australian football and came up with the theory that Aboriginal footballers in the AFL are the kind of Aborigines that all white fellas in Australia would like to have living in their street. Primarily, this is about Aboriginal people being success stories in terms of mainstream society. They are highly-integrated into society’s institutions through football and perhaps most importantly these days they are very wealthy people.

I think there are subtle elements of enlightened racism operating as a system of assimilation which echoes Australia’s past in very deep ways. I think this goes to how society and the football world views success. Success is defined in terms of an Aboriginal boy from Arnhem Land, the Kimberley or Central Australia making it all the way to the Essendon Football Club. Once he arrives in top-flight football he is deemed to be a success to be celebrated.

However, there is little thought or understanding given to different kinds of successes; successes in terms of Indigenous cultures. No-one really ever asks how that young man might be impacted in terms of missing out on learning about his culture from older men; about ‘what is my dreaming, what is my country, how do I connect with that country and understand it ?’ Which are all key things for many communities across Australia.

After years of being dismissed by AFL recruiters as “too much trouble”, Aboriginal footballers are now seen as a precious resource. There are about 70 Indigenous players currently on AFL lists, which accounts for about 10 per cent of all players. There are also 90,000 participants in AFL-backed programs, in a nation in which Aboriginal people make up only 2.5% of the population.

But this concentration on those playing the game conceals the fact that there is very little Indigenous participation in the game beyond the boundary line. There are no senior coaches or senior administrators and the press-box is a whites-only affair. Nothing suggests this is about to change.

Through the prism of enlightened racism, Judd sees much of today’s welcoming of Aboriginal players into the AFL system as similar to the way things happened many generations ago.

“In the 19th century it was considered fashionable and popular for European societies to go out into the new world, find themselves some natives and bring them back to perform in circuses,” he said.

In the AFL there is a degree of that. Aboriginal people are players, performers. They have the right attributes to under-take that role but when you speak to football industry people about the possibility of an Aboriginal on-field leader moving across to being a senior coach or administrator there’s the idea that it’s not possible because Aboriginal people are incapable of undertaking those roles.

These people who express these views will revert back to 19th century racism: ‘They lack the intelligence, they don’t have the ability to turn up and work between 9 and 5. They are lazy. It’s not them, etc.'

Judd believes a slick 21st century corporate image hides much of the reality about racism in football, which is the same as ever, but with just a slightly difference face:

The AFL, through its brand projection, has this image of being anti-racist, of promoting Indigenous Australia, of there being a degree of equality between Indigenous people and other Australians; as having moved beyond the paradigm of racism.I believe that is just not the case. In fact many of the old racial stereotypes that emerged in Australia from the 19th and most of the 20th century remain highly influential in football circles. The only difference is that once upon a time those racial/cultural traits associated with Aboriginal people kept them out of the game, when now, in the 21st century many of those traits are putting them into the game as players.

Several years ago we surveyed AFL recruiting staff. It was found that many of the stereotypes about Aboriginal people were directly responsible for recruiting players to the AFL. Many of them expressed ideas that Aboriginal people have been hunters and gatherers for 40,000 years plus; they have been out in the bush hunting kangaroos and emus; they have certain skills that have developed as a result of that lifestyle that are now useful for elite Australian football. The talk is of muscle twitch, a perception that Aboriginal players are fast runners over short bursts, that they have a magical perception of space and time which enables them to be in the right place at the right time and to know what a team-mate is going to do before anyone else does.

All of these things are racist, in my view, because they are seen as natural attributes that Aboriginal people have and therefore Aboriginal players in AFL don’t get to that level through hard work and determination on their own merits, they get there because of these inherent natural racial and cultural attributes they are born with.

The AFL may be keen to lead the way in taking racism out of football. However, as well as dismissing the idea that it remains racist in its attitude towards Aboriginal off-field participation, it is also disinclined to see that its’ celebrated push into remote aboriginal communities could have a negative impact.

Indeed, when Judd recently visited the remote Northern Territory community of Pupunya, it became clear to him that the intrusion – and dominance – of white fella’s football wasn’t as positive as we have all been led to believe.

“I was invited by an elder up there, Sid Anderson, who is also a coach of a local team. Sid was quite concerned about the direction football in Central Australia and the relationship between Aboriginal communities and the white institutionalised leagues in Alice Springs,” he explained.

Sid could remember back when football on Aboriginal communities was a highly cultural activity played in a way that reflected Aboriginal culture in that part of the world. People would organise matches between different communities, or carnivals between multiple communities. These would be games that, I believe, probably reflect traditional games which pre-date codified Australian football. There would often be no scoreboards involved, the players and the crowds would have a discussion at the end of the match to figure out who won the game; there wouldn’t be any umpires involved. They were highly-informal matches. They would be played in keeping with kinship relationships, very openly with an emphasis on speed and little, if any tackling. This is in keeping with kinship relationships because you are just not able to touch some other relations at all.

The point of the story is that Aboriginal football on these communities evolved in a particular cultural context that often had very little in common with what was going on in Alice Springs. People in the communities today see this as something of a golden age because they had a high degree of autonomy over how football was played. 

The framework of playing football in remote Central Australia was changed forever around 2008 when several community teams were encouraged to join the Central Australian league in Alice Springs (which operates under the AFL banner). It is a league like most across Australia. It is highly-structured, with a set fixture of matches. 

In Central Australia there are several cultural and practical problems which are having a negative impact upon the Aboriginal communities that now play in that league. Communities like Papunya and Yuendumu, which are several hundred kilometres from Alice Springs, are required to play both their home and away games in Alice Springs. The town teams refuse to go to communities and play on red dirt. They want to play on MCG-style grass in town. 

The additional time spent on the road has created a number of negative impacts. There’s a significant cost in petrol and wear and tear on vehicles, and a higher probability of road accidents. Then you have the problem of the Northern Territory Intervention. This means that most Aboriginal people who live outside of Alice Springs are no longer allowed to consume alcohol anywhere near their communities. So young men, as they do everywhere, regardless of race or culture, like to have a drink after the game. This, combined with immense travel involved, means many don’t want to go back to their communities. They say: why go home, we are back again here next Saturday. So they stay in town, drink and get into trouble, and often end up in gaol.

Certainly the AFL has done much to create awareness around racism and has lent its valuable profile to the fight against it. But, as the now-regular crowd booing of Adam Goodes has reminded us all,  it’s far more entrenched in our 21st century society than most people are prepared to admit.

You can follow Trevor Grant on Twitter @TreverGrant10.

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