It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Worst of Times Australia, racism and Adam Goodes

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The furore around the booing of Adam Goodes (note the definite article for booing of Adam Goodes) has been inescapable and almost impossible to resist joining. There’s something morbidly fascinating about the stubborn, pitched ideological battle that’s being waged, and it is difficult to look away.

Reading articles, letters, op-eds, tweets, shares, likes, re-posts, analyses, I’ve found it impossible not to endless-scroll down a rabbit hole, hunched over the light of my phone. And my compulsion to read is equal for staunch defense of Goodes as it is for unrepentant criticism. The dialogue surrounding these events is a fractal representation of so many other issues: racism in Australia, cultural commentary, social media and the echo chamber, privilege, power. It manages to sit in the center of all these overlapping circles in a Venn diagram of the greatest hits for culture war themes. If ever there was a time when falling into the bleak abyss of online comments was a mortal danger, this is it.

However, the fact that the treatment of Adam Goodes has divided the country (albeit along predictable lines) does not mean the man or his actions are divisive. He merely becomes the lens through which our existing divisions, neatly papered over, have become unsettlingly revealed. People have taken a look at the picture before them – maybe the entirety, maybe not – and have drawn vastly different conclusions of what they have seen.

To one camp, Adam Goodes has become a lodestone for an unreconstructed and unreconciled racist Australia, which actively and passively cuts the legs out from its Indigenous citizens and minorities. To the other camp, Adam Goodes has become a symbol of progressive, left-wing protectionalism of Indigenous Australia, political correctness and black armbands, and moral and intellectual condescension.

And the silence of Adam Goodes in the last week, missing from the field and spotlight, has been almost shockingly powerful. His absence in the chaos of debate is so striking, as his image and his words and his name are everywhere and yet the man himself has withdrawn to find safety. You can’t blame him.

As Adam Goodes becomes a cipher for all that is right and hopeful or all that is wrong and damaging about Australia, there’s a disquieting symmetry with the (now) 15 year old who called him an “ape” in 2013. This girl is now fully deployed as ammunition by all sides, reluctant fodder in battle.

I had a chat with close friends about the whole circus the other day while catching up; I imagine lots of people have had similar conversations. It wasn’t a particularly long conversation nor a particularly virulent one – as you’d expect, my close friends have opinions not wildly dissimilar to mine. But some of them were keener followers of AFL than I or less so, some had followed the story closer, others hadn’t.

A disclaimer/explanation: I’m Australian, born and bred. I’m also eurasian; son of an anglo-saxon mother and a Mauritian-born father of Chinese descent. I’m exceedingly fortunate in that I grew up in a home of stability, in areas of strong socio-economic standing, and with an enviable education in the state schools of Melbourne’s inner east. While I was very much a distinct minority in an overwhelmingly white landscape (particularly in earlier childhood), I managed to experience something like the least amount of racism you could face, whilst still not being a (full) member of the majority.

With that comparatively genteel upbringing and interactions with ‘White Australia’ do I still feel there are veins of racism running throughout our national identity? Without a doubt.

Racism is alive and well in Australia, but its face isn’t the grazed knuckles of the United Patriots Front or the shaky mobile phone videos of abusers swearing and threatening on public transport. The most damaging of it is structural, passive and not especially malicious. It is genuinely easy for us to condemn racist violence and hateful actions (although politicians at times have struggled to do so). But the racism which exists unself-examined in many Australians is more problematic.

It’s where you can easily say you get along with the former refugee who runs the milkbar, or the international student cab driver you had who was hilarious and wouldn’t shut up about football, or your niece’s Filipino boyfriend. Those relationships are fine, and I’m glad you get along with those people. But those relationships most likely haven’t challenged you, haven’t demanded that you change perspective or position, haven’t moved you to territory that is new.

The Gordian knot emerges when — as Adam Goodes has precipitated — people are required to decide whether it is they or Goodes who must change to resolve this. Let’s say you think Goodes is a flog, that booing is part and parcel of the game and that racism is a reverse-engineered excuse. What would it take to change your mind? Could you change your mind? And even if you didn’t change your mind, could you change your behaviour?

There are multiple perspectives and analyses of the last few weeks’ clamour, but when reflecting on the fate of Goodes in the midst of this I can’t help think that every one of us has come away damaged.

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