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

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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. This artcile was originally published on 30 May 2013.

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



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Existing comments

A side issue of the McGuire story is, while the girl is publicly shamed by the AFL, the high profile football and media identity goes untouched by the sport's administration and the media police. The St Kilda player, guilty of a drug offence, is severely punished, virtually ending his career while the much higher profile Essendon worthies are penalised but allowed to live another day as AFL personalities. The controlling body of Australia's major sport promotes an unfair competition starting with its contrived schedule of matches. The above mentioned injustices are typical of a sport whose moral basis is hard to understand.
grebo | 09 January 2014


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