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Best of 2013: McGuire ape gaffe exposes Australian tolerance as myth

  • 09 January 2014

There 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'