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McGuire ape gaffe exposes Australian tolerance as myth


Eddie McGuire looking anxiousThere are lessons to be learned from the Eddie McGuire 'King Kong' debacle, not least of which is how it so perfectly demonstrates the discrepancy between how Australians like to view themselves and the reality.

When Indigenous AFL star Adam Goodes was called an 'ape' by a teenage fan McGuire jumped in to defuse the situation, apologising to Goodes and passing off the taunt as the innocent mistake of a teenager who had no idea that what she said was racist.

This is how we like to see ourselves: a country that is fundamentally tolerant and where racist incidents are not only aberrations but usually not even racist. As long as we apologise and quickly move on, we can continue believing there isn't an underlying racial inequality inherent in our society.

But McGuire's on air comments just days later, that Goodes could be employed to promote the musical King Kong, brings the reality to the fore. Even as we apologise for causing offence — unintentional of course — in the very next breath we can and speak in a way that ensures racial inequality perseveres.

If the girl in question didn't know she was making a racist statement, it is in large part because of flippant comments such as McGuire's that continue to equate black people with non-human animals. The reason 'ape' is an intrinsically racist comment when directed at black people is because for centuries it was this equation that was used to justify colonisation and attempted annihilation.

In some ways, this casual racism is more devastating than deliberate racial vilification because it exudes an unconscious acceptance of white privilege, of a state of mind that does not understand what it means to be the inheritor of centuries of dehumanisation.

This, along with other recent incidents, such as the Delta Goodrem 'blackface' episode, show how desperately Australians need to discuss race. I have no doubt that Goodrem and McGuire had no malicious intent. But both of them have forwarded the erroneous belief that when it comes to racism, it is intent not outcome that matters.

Those who object to Indigenous people being called 'apes' and to white men painting themselves black are dismissed as being politically correct and infringing on the rights of others to say and do as they please. Comments such as those of British comedians Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais to the effect that there is 'no right not to be offended' are used to defend the rights of the privileged to continue marginalising the disadvantaged.

Here's the thing: there is offence and then there is offence. When Fry and Gervais say we choose to be offended, they speak of the offence to one's sensibilities. They mean that one can decide to be offended by, for example, public nudity, swearing, or the satirisation of religious doctrine.

Then there is the offence against one's very person. How can Goodes choose not to be offended by comments conceived for the very purpose of justifying crimes against the racial group to which he belongs? How can any of us who belong to marginalised groups not be offended when we know the damage caused by such language?

Language is not harmless. It is through language that unspeakable horrors against blacks, women, Jews, and others were justified.

As historian Marjorie Spiegel notes, throughout history, when oppressors wanted to target a particular group, they used language to prepare the population for the coming destruction. Slavery was accepted because the terminology used to describe black people — mad dogs, coons, apes — did such a powerful job of turning humans beings into something 'other' that it was not considered a crime to sell them into bondage.

To defend statements that clearly vilify a certain group under 'freedom of speech' not only undermines what that freedom actually is — to speak your mind without the threat of tyranny — it totally subverts it from something intended to protect vulnerable people into something that maintains the discriminatory status quo.

Here is what it comes down to: those who belong to a dominant, privileged group, do not get to decide what is and isn't offensive to the marginalised minorities that are the butt of the offence.

The idea that such minorities should 'get over it' and allow the majority to live in a cocoon of ignorance is not acceptable. To accept race-based taunts is to ensure the lessons of the past will never be learned.

These are our teachable moments. It is through our reaction to these incidents that we can finally turn the fantasy of how we Australians perceive ourselves into the reality of a tolerant and equal nation. 

Ruby Hamad headshotRuby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs and tweets.  

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, Adam Goodes, Eddie McGuire, Collingwood Football Club, racism, King Kong, ape



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"As historian Marjorie Spiegel notes, throughout history, when oppressors wanted to target a particular group, they used language to prepare the population for the coming destruction. Slavery was accepted because the terminology used to describe black people — mad dogs, coons, apes — did such a powerful job of turning humans beings into something 'other' that it was not considered a crime to sell them into bondage." Marjorie Spiegel seems to be speaking more from a Critical Studies point of view than a strictly historical one, Ruby. Australian culture, despite the advent of multiculturalism, is still, very much to my mind, basically a sub-branch of the general Anglophone culture, which is very much based on an Anglo-Saxon cultural point of view. Sadly many Australians, often those of Anglo-Saxon background, don't know their own cultural history. Anglo-Saxon culture was the dominant one in the British Isles (England; Edinburgh and the Lowlands; the Ascendancy in Ireland were all English speaking whilst the Celts were on the periphery for a very long time). The dominant English speaking culture was a branch of the Western European one whose concept of superiority was very much based on the Crusades and the battle with Islam. Later, after the Reformation and England embracing a particular form of Protestantism, the feeling of superiority to all foreigners tended to come in. When Western Europeans went to the New World and Asia and Africa this sense of inherent superiority to "the natives" did not take long to reassert itself after the romance of first contact faded. I would contest that derogatory language developed after conquest in part to justify the status quo. "Scientific racism" (a contradiction in terms) in its worst Neo-Darwinist expression was a result of this (Darwin would've disavowed Neo-Darwinian racism: his own family were vehemently anti-racist as was he). I suspect both the girl and Eddie McGuire were speaking from this inherited cultural point of view. Language developed to "explain" the status quo. Often people fall back to unconscious repetition of their assumed cultural superiority. You see it in some extreme Muslims who divide "Muslims" and "Kaffirs". Strangely "Kaffir" was a word used by white South Africans in the bad old days of apartheid to denigrate the majority community there. Adam Goodes is the one who comes out of this whole nasty business as a real gentleman and a builder of bridges and reconciler. He rose above it to show us the way. So did Gandhi and Mandela. He shamed the rest of us as well he should've. We need to question our underlying assumptions. I don't think most Australians are racist in the Nazi or Afrikaner Nationalist mould. I think things have changed radically since the 1950s and 60s days of White Australia. We are, I think, moving to a more multiracial concept of ourselves.

Edward F | 30 May 2013  

Political humour is always risky. And when people don't get your humorous point, it can go pear-shaped real quick. I won't die in the ditch on this one, but, listening to a replay of Eddie's comment this morning for the first time, I came away underwhelmed at all the fuss. Does anyone know what irony is any more? Heaven help Shakespeare! No: it seemed absolutely clear to me Eddie wasn't seriously suggesting Adam Goodes appear in an advertisement for “King Kong”. On the contrary, what was going on was this: he was actually trying to highlight the manifest ridiculousness of the suggestion (even if the 13 y.o. didn't even intend it in a racist way herself) that Goodes could be likened to an ape. No-one appreciated the irony. Or perhaps some did, but saw bigger P.C. fish to fry. OK, so he's predictably 'fessed up, grovelled and truckled in an unconvincing attempt to back away. Why? Because if he'd said, "I stand by my comment. I was trying to show how manifestly ridiculous - nay, even racist - is a proposition that likens Adam Goodes, or any aboriginal or dark skinned person, to an animal.", he'd now be an ex-Collingwood official. But comedians and others do this stuff all the time and get away with it. Often with justification. Thus: was Jesus being deadly serious when he implied that the Syro-Phoenician woman was a dog? Or was He perhaps rehearsing - in order to expose in all its ugliness - the entrenched prejudice of the local community? Even if so, was He a racist, nevertheless? If not, was it because He got the balance exactly right, whereas Eddie, who (some say) is not God, didn't?

HH | 31 May 2013  

This is a thoughtful article and I would like to congratulate Ruby for putting the whole situation in its necessary context. It is not for us to determine what is offensive, but for those who are vilified to have the freedom to object. Thank you very much.

Vivienne | 31 May 2013  

Ruby, it's not just in Australia that there's a lacking of 'tolerance'. Scratch any country and you'll find your share of racists, some more vocal (and with access to the media, like McGuire) than others. Having lived in a major 'east Asian country' for four years a while ago I found myself, as a Caucasian, often on the receiving end of racist behaviour, if not comments. This is not to defend those who lack tolerance, and as much as I'd like to deny it, any amount of 'education programs' won't eradicate intolerance or prejudice. It's been there since Man first walked the earth, and regrettably will stay forever. All we can try to do is minimise it. But to paraphrase the late Margaret Thatcher, it may be better to deny these (intolerant) people 'the oxygen of publicity'. Cheers!

Roy Stall | 31 May 2013  

i agree Edward. Those who claim to have suffered taunts about being a Catholic or Protestant or fat or skinny or re-headed or a myriad of other verbal abuses cannot surely equate this to the racial vilification of those with darker skins. It really comes down to the age old comment... walk in my moccasins before you truly know.I'm sure we will see a good outcome from all this.

Patricia Taylor | 31 May 2013  

Serious racism is in our relatively recent past and it takes generations to disappear, if ever.In the early 1970s I was part of a team of social workers and educators working as resource/advisers to an urban Aboriginal community (recently arrived) from rural lands). We were required to update our knowledge base through reading articles that appeared daily on our desks. Thus we were made aware of seriously argued and researched debates here and other western societies (mainly US)about the relative intelligence (culture based IQ tests, head and brain size)of European and non European (black) people. I was also aware that many of the children were fully conscious of the prejudice (low to very low expectations) of their teachers and this was echoed and endorsed through some of the interviews I had with school principals and teachers. This was the reality of these people, trying so very hard -- against huge economic and social odds -- to understand how to survive in the urban environment. This discussion reminds us that, despite PC and legislation, this unconscious and embedded racism remains.

Jane | 31 May 2013  

Thank you for this excellent analysis Ruby. Unfortunately these 'teachable moments' get lost when all the commentary in the media is being done by the ignorant. We need more people like you if we're going to create that 'tolerant and equal' nation we all dream of.

Joseph Vine | 31 May 2013  

The worst racism I have experienced was as a white visitor in Paris - presumably because the Parisians knew I wasn't French from my severely limited vocabulary and the thought that I was probably English. It wasn't exactly an abuse-free picnic growing up as an Irish Catholic in a protestant environment either. Just in passing, (and I hope this isn't construed as a racist comment) I searched the Australian vernacular soon after this controversy gave the journos and ever-so-righteous commentators something to bleat over and in less than ten minutes listed 41 animals,8 birds, 3 insects and 5 sea creatutes, 57 creatures in all that are regularly part of the vernacular applied to other people - and I'm sure I missed quite a few. The use of animal references as descriptors probably highlights a lack of command of the mother tongue but I suspect that the same applies in any country and in all races. If we are going to go down the path of protecting all sensitivities from the distress and shattering experience of being referred to as one animal or other perhaps the time has come for all races, groups, clubs etc to list those animals that are not acceptable to them. We might even have to remove animal names from all the sporting clubs and teams etc!! This is clearly a bloody silly post of mine - just as silly as the media week that has followed in the aftermath of last weekend's racial slur of Adam Goodes. Will we soon be in trouble for calling a sook a sook or a clown a clown?.

john frawley | 31 May 2013  

Beautifully said, Ms Hamad. Spoken language is our very first means of communicating with our fellow humans so yes, words are not harmless. If they were, billions would not be spent on advertising, to use a shallow example. Spoken and written propaganda work. In Oz, only people of colour have the simian epithet used against them and implies that they are sub-human. Under no circumstances could this ever be "humourous" and certainly not "political humour" - ever!

Patricia R | 31 May 2013  

Our White history is just two long lifetimes old in Australia. We are in very early adolescence of trying to come to terms with how "we" (there is our inherited collective guilt) overcome how we damaged our indigenous people. We are going to have lots of awkward moments in the ensuing years. From my perspective Eddie is a seriously great man who ha gone out of his way to (quietly) assist many people from all walks of life. This will be one corrugation on the dusty dirt road to reconciliation.

Robert | 31 May 2013  

Not long ago, a young visitor from USA remarked how Australians are casual about racism. Eddie McGuire's comment fits into that description. It is very easy to believe that Eddie wasn't intending any racist slur and almost certainly he was being ironic, given the incident involving Adam Goodes during the recent football match. While there is racism in Australia as in probably all countries, I believe many of the comments which cause offense are not so much racist as lacking sensitivity for the other person. As a nation, we are very slow to learn that you can laugh at your own group; you can be ironic at the expense of your own race, ethnicity or religion without causing offense - but not at the expense of any other. When indigenous Australians make jokes about themselves, Jewish Australians wax ironic about Jewish behaviour and we grandparents blame our forgetfulness on Alzeimers, offense is rarely caused. But the humour is lost if the very same jokes or irony are attempted by someone outside the target group. Sensitivity for the other is necessary in everyday social mixing; it is absolutely crucial in a culturally diverse nation.

Ian Fraser | 31 May 2013  

I am a bit concerned that if we are not all very careful the storm might overturn the teacup. What has really happened? A schoolgirl, a passionate supporter of her football club, barracked using an expression that a professional footballer, playing a very robust game in a very robust manner, found offensive. The young woman could have hurled the same words at any other big, strong,rugged player without offense, and probably would have if another player had been involved in the game immediately in front of where she was seated. I don't see racism hiding under that particular bed. Then a club official made some remarks that are better attributed to inherent stupidity than racism. Sadly both stupidity and racism exist in Australia and in sport.

v squared | 31 May 2013  

Dear Ruby! Thank you for such an insightful article. “The idea that such minorities should 'get over it' and allow the majority to live in a cocoon of ignorance is not acceptable.” Spot on! “”A tolerant and equal nation” is still a myth as long as this kind of behavioral language continues to go on unchallenged.

Toan Nguyen | 31 May 2013  

I was going to hypothesise on what might have happened if it had been a thirty year old Magpies supporter, built like The Incredible Hulk, who had yelled out the offensive word against Adam Goodes, but, no, I said, stick to the facts. But the available facts are so few that I decided to be content with the final outcome. The girl and her parents and her peers have learned that some forms of abuse hurled at opposition players (and I've heard worse hurled at umpires)can be racially offensive. And Mr Goodes' stand has made a statement to the whole nation about how offensive racial abuse can be to all non-white sportsmen. Something good had come out of something bad. Then came Eddie Everywhere's gaffe. I agree with HH's analysis of the situation. Eddie's tone of voice made it clear to me he was being ironic. Americans on the whole just don't get irony. Just ask Ricky Gervais. Australians are just as deaf to ironic jokes. But as Sammy Davis Jnr who used to make jokes about his personifying two racial minorities said about comedy - Timing is everything. Eddie got the timing and the place wrong.

Uncle Pat | 31 May 2013  

I concur with HH .. It was ham fisted irony on Eddie's part. Again our understanding of our own language devices is exposed. That's not to excuse anyone for calling anyone else an ape. That is offensive to anyone except perhaps animal liberationists. It's very cheap journalism for media to turn this (as usual) into a 'football match" on racism. I can only think it saves them doing the more costly and responsible commentary with informed, sensitive insights on what else is going on in the world...Syria?Sudan? Indigenous communities Further conspiracy theory might suggest it also would help reduce the huge drawcard that AFL is and the consequent cost to the associated tv co. of broadcasting. Ape is not a vilification used against any particular group....It might be though, if this rubbish keeps going. The article above is not included in the rubbish category, in case of mistaken sensitivity, but it is a bit motherhoodish and doesn't really take into account the logic of that "offence'" wisdom it propounds. Doubtless it's good to address derogatory terms before they slip into acceptance. The 'colonial' racial inferiority idea was likely beyond the teenager's understanding of history but it is age-ist to condemn one and excuse the other, who really was rudely vilifying a wonderful athlete and good person.

sue lambert | 31 May 2013  

My father was Irish and I relate strongly to that heritage. History shows that the English put the Irish down as next to being plain stupid, and no doubt generations of that sort of treatment led many to believe that about themselves. Irish jokes abound in our society and I tell a few myself. I don't get upset about it and treat them for what they are - just jokes. Irish comedian Hal Roach boasted that most Irish jokes originated in Ireland. In other word the Irish can define a sense of humour from a racist remark. Lighten up!

John Morris | 31 May 2013  

Thank you Ruby for putting this one out there as a teachable moment. The word conscientisation (if it is a word) was bandied around for a while. My understanding of it was to alter the individual or collective consciousness. Back in the 1980s I had the privilege of studying at Boston College. At the induction, we as new post grad students were advised that all papers were to utilise inclusive language or they would not be accepted. Indeed it was a challenge but after a while I found by writing in this way I began to think in a different way. It altered my consciousness about women's issues and how much we took what seemed normal for granted. When I started to incorporate inclusive language in my conversations (way back then and since) people, both men and women would comment on it. I would like to think the ensuing conversations could be considered teachable moments. I think articles such as yours do a great job of making people think about the use of language. As you say, "Language is not harmless."

John Southwell | 31 May 2013  

So why isn't it also racist to call a redhead "Ranga"? (Short for orangutan)

AURELIUS | 31 May 2013  

The racist terms 'ape' and 'monkey' have been around a long time V Squared and Sue. And they have been regularly applied to dark-skinned sportsmen. This isn't a new offensive word or idea. It's well and truly time it was recognised for its ugliness and discontinued. Eddie was probably just being ironic. He would have done better to explain his comment from that point of view if that really was what he meant. Aurelius - I think you'll find that red-heads aren't a 'race'.

Bernadette | 31 May 2013  

Eddy never called Goodes an "ape". His suggestion that Goodes could promote the show about an ape should be seen as a heavy handed bit of Aussie irony/absurdist homour; an attempt to laugh off the incident. I dont endorse the suggestion or joke but i dont want to hang a bloke out to dry for one mistake when he has a great record of tolerance and cross cultural engagement on many other occasions.

geoff fox | 31 May 2013  

I must have lived a sheltered 70 years, I have never heard the term "Ape" applied to any race in particular, black, white or yellow. It is usually applied to someone who has done something stupid or clumsy, or may be immature or is just in the way. As for the term “coon”, I have always thought of it as being uniquely Australian and can't imagine it having been used during the slave trade of Africans.

Fred | 31 May 2013  

If people are so outraged by such minor examples of racism this demonstrates that racism is becoming increasingly rare and low level in Australia.

peter | 31 May 2013  

I note this review of Marjorie Spiegel's book: From Library Journal Spiegel, executive director of the Institute for the Development of Earth Awareness, has revised her 1989 book to present an in-depth exploration of the similarities between the violence humans have wrought against other humans and our culture's treatment of animals. Using considerable scholarship, she makes a strong case for links between white oppression of black slaves and human oppression of animals. Her thesis is not that the oppressions suffered by black people and animals have taken identical forms but that they share the same relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. These comparisons include the brandings and auctions of both slaves and animals, the hideous means of transport (slave ships, truckloads of cattle), and the tearing of offspring from their mothers. Her illustrative juxtapositions are graphic, e.g., a photograph of a chimpanzee in a syphilis experiment beside a photo of a black man in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. As Alice Walker writes in the preface, "This powerful book...will take a lifetime to forget." Chilling yet enlightening, this provocative book is vitally important in our efforts to understand the roots of individual and societal violence. It belongs in all libraries. [The book received a special award from The International Society for Animal Rights.?Ed.]?Eva Lautemann, DeKalb Coll. Lib., Clarkston, Ga. -?Eva Lautemann, DeKalb Coll. Lib., Clarkston, Ga. Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. Review Quite frankly, even with a foreword by Alice Walker, this would put Spiegel in the "slightly lunar" class for me. She would seem to select the most extreme and atrocious stories to suit her case. I find the comparison unedifying. I know it is academic practice, often taken up by relatively new graduates, to lard out articles with quotes, often from "flavour of the month" fellow academics or writers. It makes it look more impressive. A perceptive reader might search out and ask "Just who is Marjorie Spiegel and how valid, in my view, are her ideas?" As I say, I think there are far better critiques to apply to the treatment of Australia's Indigenous peoples than Spiegel's. George Orwell for one wrote much on prejudice in Anglo-Saxon society. I am also concerned that Ms Hammad attempts to link the treatment of Aboriginal (hopefully including Torres Strait Islanders) with other deemed oppressed groups. This is one of those "common cause" banners. My contention as a Non-Indigenous person is that the treatment of Indigenous people in this country has, historically, been so atrocious that, in the Adam Goodes case, we need to focus on that. As I say, I think, in the current circumstances, Australians, broad, mainstream Australians of all ethno-religious backgrounds, have moved on considerably from the prejudices of the past. The condemnation of McGuire by the sports writer Rebecca Wilson and Mick Malthouse in today's Courier-Mail speaks volumes.

Edward F | 01 June 2013  

Negative Racism should not be tolerated but without positive racism, disadvantaged groups could never be helped. What should also not be tolerated is the illegal abuse of a 13 year old girl by police thugs!

Michael Siddle | 01 June 2013  

Bernadette, "dark-skinned people" aren't a race either. I think min was a fair question about "Ranga" being also racist. The fact that we are so quick to define racist terminology is because we are scared to delve into the false stereotypes because of our own fears of maybe being racist.

AURELIUS | 03 June 2013  

Thank you Ruby for making these incidents 'teachable' moments for me.

Marie o'connor sgs | 03 June 2013  

This is not a particularly good article and I would really like to exit from any discussion of it. My concern is of its author quoting Marjorie Spiegel as "a historian". As far as I can see Ms Spiegel is an animal activist of a particular sort: the sort who confute animals and people as being the same and having equal rights. Taken to extremes it leads to the supposedly only intellectual philosophical proposition by Peter Singer that people should, if they so choose, be able to marry their pets. I find this degrading and humiliating of people. St Francis of Assisi, to me, demonstrated the correct human behaviour to animals without being downright silly. Racism should be discussed as a human problem without this. It is a serious one and should be treated as such. I think those such as Ms Spiegel degrade it.

Edward F | 04 June 2013  

Did anyone ask the 12 year old girl did she mean Adam was aborigional or just looked big ?? to her.

John M Costigan | 17 July 2013  

Ruby - very salient article. I wonder for those who think Goodes should harden up would they use apes gags or references if they were in downtown Redfern surronded by a heap of Blakfellas - I think not.

Sean | 08 October 2014  

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