My dad played local football when I was growing up. I used to go to watch him play matches. He would run onto the field and people would make monkey noises at him. I didn’t know what it meant. In the car ride home I’d ask my mum, “Why do people keep doing that at dad?” At first mum always found ways to deflect the question.
It was only when I was a bit older that she explained what those people meant by their jeers. “They’re making monkey noises,” she said. “Why?” I asked.
“Because he’s black.”
“They’re calling him a monkey because he’s black?” I was dumb-founded. I had never heard anything so stupid.
Later, I learnt about history of our people in this country. I came to know that when Australia was first explored by the Europeans, the Indigenous people were only barely and grudgingly accorded the status of human beings. Our people were indeed compared to monkeys and apes. Describing our people as something akin to animals was a pseudo-scientific way of justifying our discriminatory treatment and exclusion, and a convenient way of justifying our dispossession.
To call someone an ape today is to allude to past Social-Darwinian theories that saw darker-skinned people as pre-evolved. It is to imply that the person is sub-human, because of their skin colour. It is to deny their equality, and indeed their very humanity.
When I realised that my dad was getting called a monkey all those years ago, and when I realised what that meant – it felt like the deepest insult. It is an insult that over time and with my increased understanding carried with it the gravitas of history. Until you have stood in the shoes of a person who is denigrated in such a way in public, and whose ancestors have suffered the injustice to which the jibe refers, you cannot understand the deep sense of humiliation such a taunt causes.
I hear the criticisms of Goodes: that he got a young girl into trouble for calling him an ape. He pointed her out to security, yes. He probably didn’t know her exact age in the midst of the heat of the game. But he also ultimately chose not to press charges. He called for the girl to be supported. Yet he is still criticised.
I hear the uproar when an impassioned Goodes did a traditional war dance on the field. People automatically disapproved and cautioned that the dance was ‘aggressive’ – as if aggression is somehow out of place in football. I was astonished by the response.
Waleed Aly pointed out that at other times, when football players have thrust ‘the finger’ at the crowd – a pretty aggressive and crude gesture to make to a paying audience – even then they didn’t get booed. Goodes got booed and still gets booed as punishment, not for any aggression he might have displayed, but for his cultural expression.
Aly explained it perfectly: “…Australia is generally a very tolerant society, until its minorities demonstrate that they don’t know their place.” Then we retaliate. We put them back in their place. We let them know that deviation from the status quo is not acceptable. Fit in, or get out. Leave your culture at home, or get booed.
“What happens is the minute an Indigenous man stands up and is something other than compliant, the back lash is huge and it is ‘them’ who are creating division and destroying our culture. And that is ultimately what we boo. We boo our discomfort.” Aly is spot on – he has nailed it.
But really, the fact that Goodes’ war dance was controversial at all is an embarrassment.
Last year I visited New Zealand. When the All Blacks do the haka before each rugby game, it is a prideful expression of Maori heritage – and of New Zealand heritage. The haka is as aggressive as you can get. It is meant to be. It too is a traditional war dance, used to intimidate opponents. Rugby is aggressive. Football is aggressive. Sport is about aggressive competition – that’s why we love it.
Why does New Zealand proudly celebrate the Maori war dance at every game, as an expression of the nation’s rich Maori heritage – but when an Aboriginal footballer (playing in the Indigenous round no less) does an Indigenous war dance, our nation somehow cannot cope? Somehow it’s unacceptable.
Is our denial of our own national heritage that deep? Are we so at war with ourselves?
The soil on which we play our game was traversed for thousands of years by the Indigenous peoples of this land. Their descendants now play the game, and do so with extraordinary and enviable skill and athletic prowess. Some say Australian Rules football itself derived from the traditional Aboriginal game, Marngrook, which as historical accounts describe was remarkably like the modern game. Mr. Thomas, an ‘Aboriginal Protector’ in 1841 observed:
“The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot. The tallest men have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it. This continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise.”
It may well be that the modern game of footy was influenced by the old Indigenous game Marngrook. And yet today we attack and disapprove of any Indigenous expression of Indigenous culture on the field.
It should not be like this. We should not deny the Indigenous heritage and history of this nation. We should not deny the Indigenous contribution to the game. It should be celebrated, as Maori culture is celebrated in New Zealand.
Imagine if each team adopted and learnt an Indigenous dance from their local area – in collaboration with local Indigenous people. Imagine if a few key moves of the team war dance were performed before each game, after the team song, just as the Maori do the haka. Imagine if Indigenous heritage was a celebrated part of our nation, and a celebrated part of our national game.
Booing may indeed be the right of all who attend the football. But being free from racial vilification is also a right to which all Australians are entitled. People should try to stand in the shoes of Indigenous people, who have endured a history of unjust discrimination, and who today still – more often than most probably think – cop racially motivated abuse. I have experienced it. I know others have. White Australians may deny that racism exists, but I speak from experience when I say that it still does. Whether you love or hate Goodes, whether you think he is too soft, playing the victim, whether you think he plays dirty or whether you think he is a great athlete – we all should acknowledge that there is a history to this kind of abuse that is directed at blackfellas. And that kind of abuse has an impact.
It is the responsibility of all of us to move beyond it.
My dad didn’t deserve to be taunted and called a monkey just because he is black. Nobody does. And Goodes doesn’t deserve to be booed for months on end, because he dared to do an Indigenous war dance.
It is possible for us to move forward into a more unified and cohesive future. We can get past this. And we can do it without punishing any expression of difference, or of Aboriginality. Our differences should be celebrated, because they make this nation what it is. They make the game what it is today.
Goodes should be allowed to creatively express his culture without abuse. I thank those comrades of all sporting codes who have supported Goodes at this difficult time, and I look forward to seeing our young football warriors – boys and men – express pride in their culture on the paddock, flanked by the support of their team mates. It simply doesn’t have to play out like the shameful events of the past few weeks.