Culture

The Adam Goodes Media Frenzy Is Confronting And Uncomfortable. That’s Why It’s Important.

The media has honed in on this debate, churning out takes from all angles. But that's not a bad thing.

Despite his clear distress at being relentlessly booed at AFL matches across the country, Adam Goodes has achieved something rare: he’s forced the nation to have an uncomfortable conversation about our seeming inherent racism towards Indigenous Australia. He will join in the revered ranks of Michael Long and Nicky Winmar, who – like Goodes – served as scapegoats and weathered unspeakable racial abuse to have the Aboriginal question brought to our dinner tables.

The passion of this debate was highlighted in the fiery spat on Melbourne’s SEN radio yesterday, between Daily Telegraph sports journalist Rebecca Wilson and AFL great Dermott Brereton. Wilson boldly declared that the booing of Goodes revealed that “we are racist”, before continuing to sum up the state of race relations in Australia, when it concerns indigenous people: “The moment he (Goodes) makes a statement on behalf of his race, the entire country starts to boo. And these people that you watch booing, they’re middle class Australians, and they think they are better than black people.”

Across social media, football forums and talkback radio, debate this week has not simply focused on the actual booing of Goodes; it has progressed to a deeper discussion of the status of indigenous people in Australia, and whether mainstream attitudes towards this community remain steeped in racism. The Guardian’s Russell Jackson writes that Goodes is being targeted for standing up for his people and asking “questions that make some people feel uncomfortable”, while New Matilda’s Chris Graham points to “entrenched” Australian racism as being the root of the jeers.

Detractors such as Brereton and SEN radio host Mark Allen have tried to hose down the race debate, pointing to Goodes’ on-field behaviour throughout his career as inviting the crowd’s jeers. But in a game that is full of players who snipe, duck, niggle, stage and sledge, it is hard to discount the race element as the primary motivator behind the unique attention Goodes is receiving. That point was made clear by Sam de Brito, who pointed out that Brereton himself – arguably one of the most aggressive players in the modern era of AFL – was “never treated like this.

While many have come out on social media supporting Goodes, opinions became more nuanced as the question of entrenched racism towards indigenous Australians took prominence in the discussion. Miranda Devine, for example, believes the current furore about the booing is the “real racism” and that this is the “sort of patronising victim-pandering that holds Aboriginals down.” Another recurring argument has been that of disassociation; that while past crimes were abhorrent, we cannot be held responsible today, and thus it is time for everyone to move on.

This was reflected in the below point of view, which was posted in a heated debate on a popular football forum yesterday: “this whole revisiting history and paying repentance for stuff that happened hundreds of years ago. Nah. It’s a waste of energy, it’s a waste of time and frankly there are more pressing matters to attend to that are more useful.”

It is this attempt to distance ourselves from the past and relegate the issues of indigenous people that makes Goodes’ public statements so important. Indigenous issues are simply not a high priority for the majority of Australians. Making up only 2.5% of the population, and with a minority of 35% of indigenous Australians living in major cities, it is no surprise that many in this country are not passionately championing the issues of a people with whom they seldom have interaction.

Sport is one of the few arenas in which many Australians actually interact with indigenous people and their culture. It’s through sport and high-profile indigenous players that these issues can find voice, and reach the masses of Australia who would otherwise be mostly indifferent to their concerns. The media has honed in on this debate, churning out takes from all angles. But that’s not a bad thing.

By pushing us to discomfort through transparent and confronting displays of indigenous culture and views, Goodes is forcing us to raise sensitive topics that many of us would prefer to ignore.

If Goodes’ war dance against Carlton in May has sparked nationwide boos at AFL games, then Goodes has succeeded in drawing out the underlying racism that still festers in our society.

If announcing that he has mixed views on Australia Day touches a raw nerve with many Australians, then Goodes has succeeded in exposing how far we are yet to travel to arrive at the point of full reconciliation. The indigenous community has long protested Australia Day as Invasion Day; Goodes is reflecting a widespread sentiment felt among indigenous Australians that many of us have long dismissed.

If stating publicly that Europeans raped, killed and stole land from his people has outraged sections of our community, then Goodes has succeeded in shattering the illusion many of us hold of the compassionate, faultless ‘lucky country’ that is Australia.

Through his outspoken opinions, Adam Goodes is reconfiguring how indigenous culture and issues are perceived and tackled in mainstream Australia. When Rebecca Wilson refers to Goodes’ “Aboriginality”, she is not referring to the didgeridoo, the boomerang, or an Aboriginal painting. Aboriginality goes beyond the superficial aspects of indigenous culture that many Australians have embraced; Aboriginality includes the real grievances and suffering this community has endured since colonisation.

Such grievances persist today, and the significance of Goodes’ statements is that he is reminding us that we cannot selectively choose the aspects of indigenous culture that make us feel comfortable. Rather, we must be confronted with the complete package, and that includes coming to terms with a shameful past, and acknowledging the enduring impact our historical crimes have had on present indigenous – and indeed Australian – identity.

Antoun Issa is a journalist and political analyst. He is the former News Editor at Al-Monitor, and has been published in a number of outlets, including The Huffington Post, ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey and The National. He tweets from @antissa

Feature image by Cameron Spencer, for Getty.