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Football racism evokes ugly past


Nicky Winmar, I am proud to be blackWhy is it an insult to call someone black? Why does a label like 'black bastard', or whatever offensive noun follows the adjective, have more force than just 'bastard'? Why, after at least three decades since black people in Australia, the United States and elsewhere have embraced the formerly derogatory adjective as a badge of pride, can this word inflict pain and evoke anger?

The events around Timana Tahu's sudden departure from the NSW Rugby League side in the State of Origin contest is just one recent example of the power of racially-charged views and the words that express them to induce strong emotions and engender controversy.

Early reports indicated that Tahu's departure had been abrupt, in response to the utterance of a racist remark by the NSW assistant coach, Andrew Johns, about an Aboriginal player on the Queensland side, Greg Inglis. Tahu's action seemed impetuous, possibly even an over-reaction. After all, it came after only the first match of three in the tournament, and he and Johns had once been teammates.

It is not surprising, then, to learn that Tahu's decision came after a number of incidences of racial vilification. Tahu left, not as a rash response to an unusual event, but after what was, for him, the last straw.

In his public statement, Johns seemed genuinely shocked as well as remorseful that he had upset Tahu; yet his attempt to explain away his outburst as an aberration lacked credibility. I presume he was surprised because his approach to team bonding had not previously been challenged. He had assumed that to use derogatory language that draws on long-held notions about 'race' is still commonplace, that it is acceptable to build solidarity and assert dominance by denigrating the Other.

Johns said he was 'shattered' at having given offence to Tahu. He would probably argue that he has the utmost respect for Tahu, sees him as a mate etc. And he would mean it.

His offensive words indicate not so much personal antipathy as the pervasive belief that skin colour is a reliable shorthand measure of personal and cultural worth.

Racist thinking is still evident in popular beliefs, attitudes and discourse, despite the prevailing scientific view, based on research that includes the mapping of the human genome, that skin colour and other markers of 'race' are relatively trivial indicators of human variation. 

Even when they attain great heights in sport, politics and other fields based on their talents, black people may still suffer vilification. The notion that they are not worthy, are irredeemably 'other', is deeply-held by some. So too, though, is the knowledge that racial taunts can evoke an emotional response which might throw players off their game. Such taunts can therefore be a cheap sledging tool rather than evidence of racist conviction.

The Tahu incident recalls the drama in the 1993 AFL season when St Kilda player Nicky Winmar (pictured) responded to the taunts of Collingwood fans by raising his jumper and pointing to his bare skin, reportedly saying 'I'm proud to be black'.

Some observers complained that AFL players are 'not allowed to use the word black' in robust exchanges on the field, while Winmar could point to his black skin with impunity. This ignores the fact that taunts referring to colour carry historical and metaphorical force, conveying common assumptions that would be all too clear to Winmar: that being black made him, to borrow Stevie Wonder's lament, a 'lesser man'.

The call by the NSW Blues coach Craig Bellamy for Tahu, Johns and Inglis to get together and discuss racial vilification assumed that these are misunderstandings that can be fixed by individuals talking to one another. But the evidence suggests that racially derogatory language is deeply embedded in our culture and is often thoughtlessly invoked — even by people who are not crudely racist.

Just last month, the mother of an Aboriginal girl from a remote community who attends an elite boarding school in Perth told me that her daughter and other Aboriginal girls have been upset because, while playing sport for their school, they are sometimes taunted by parents of their opponents. Their account of the content of the abuse was vague, but what stuck, and hurt, was 'they call us black'.

Tahu stated, 'This isn't about me or Andrew Johns, it's about arresting racism and standing up for my beliefs'. His action gives the NRL an opportunity to adopt some of measures that the AFL instituted after the Winmar incident. First implemented in 1995, these include a prohibition on racist abuse, and a conciliation process to resolve complaints of vilification. Such measures seem to have had some benefits (Aussie Rules heavyweight Mal Brown's cannibal comment this week not withstanding). But much remains unchanged.

What is most needed is a society-wide awareness that racist beliefs are outmoded, but that their legacy is enduring and painful for those who have been on the wrong side of the exclusion zone. As long as deep inequalities, with their origin in racial thinking, persist, even the most successful members of out-groups will be hurt by epithets that invoke the ugly past.

Myrna TonkinsonDr Myrna Tonkinson is an honourary research fellow in anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia who has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974.

Topic tags: Myrna Tonkinson, Timana Tahu, Mal Brown, Rugby League, State of Origin



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Existing comments

A six week trip around four states in Australia to some remote and other country areas just listening gives one some idea of the way "difference" is seen. It is also common in older age group activities in the city
Racist, ethnic and sexist jokes abound and are rarely challenged. The Mal Brown syndrome is alive and well. The message isnt vastly different from the forties when I was growing up
For some reason we havent evolved in a way which is accepting of difference and enjoying it.
That racism is alive and well in elite school communities raises the question of our maturity as a nation and ask how can this change??

GAJ | 18 June 2010  

Being respectful of the Other in our speach is generally described as "Political Correctness" these days and our most recent former PM openly exprressed his disdain for the conventions of PC. I think this has emboldened people in recent times to regard these conventions as old-fashioned and the xenophobia aroused by such things as the immigration/refugee debate has given people a sense that it is okay to denigrate the Other rather than respect them.

John Clapton | 18 June 2010  

What a wonderful article, in such a gentle and moderate voice, to discuss the very real and ugly issue of racism. Yes, racism, like sexism and other wounding isms, is still with us. And we all contribute to it when we tolerate it.

Eveline Goy | 18 June 2010  

The untimely outburst of that appeal to lowest form of abuse presents a timely reminder to the rest of us. With NADOC week in 2 weeks, the wider community needs to acknowledge that subtle residue of guilt, still un-assuaged. The hangover of those days when dark people were more frequently described as savages is still embedded in the Australian psyche, albeit usually quite unconsciously.
The importance
of sport in reminding us of our common humanity, our common origins is currently being played out in the amazing circumstances of South Africa.

The recent outbreaks of abuse in Rugby and AFL are teaching us all a lesson.
Let’s use NADOC week to extend that lesson.

Jim Bowler | 18 June 2010  

I believe that it took extraordinary courage from Timana to put his frustrations about racial vilification ahead of the game. And it wasn't just any game that he decided to exclude himself from. He has and will aways have my admiration and thanks for saying what was wrong about racial slurs traditionally being used to denigrate players of opposition sides as the way to lift a side before the big match. Congratulations Timana

Paul Rummery | 18 June 2010  

Andrew Johns and Mal Brown have both publicly apologised for their tasteless comments. Is that not enough? Seriously -what does Eureka St want?

I think we already have society-wide awareness that racist beliefs are outmoded. This is likely to continue. But what we don't have is a williness on the part of out-groups to adopt a more conciliatory attitude to forgive epithets that invoke the ugly past. Would that not be a better solution; don't you think?

Nathan Socci | 18 June 2010  

I agree with the sentiment of Nathan Soccis' reply. People who suddenly change friendly banter to unwelcome offence are two faced. One thing - are NRL pros becoming so media savvy that they could use media behaviour to their own benefit (i.e. obvious media blow up - followed by 'game you don't want to play')? Check Tahu's shifting of his eyes right all the time in his annoucement. Man - he was shifty. No credence to him from me. This was a young guy using things to his own benefit; so what has changed? ARL as a true sport is dead - killed by media.

DW | 18 June 2010  

Absolutely, Dr Tonkinson, racism will stay firmly entrenched in the Australian psyche for as long as THE OTHER remains so firmly entrenched in our legal and bureaucratic structure.

Separate legislation, separate homelands, separate programs, separate money, a separate bureaucracy all clearly ensure that we are forever conscious and aware of the fact that there are OTHERS who are indeed distinct and separate from us. And thus must be treated differently.

Racism is here to stay as long as this fundamental dichotomy persists.

John R. Sabine | 18 June 2010  

A very good article. Just one issue: why was there a furore over the word 'black' and no mention of its accompanying 'cu*t'? You see I have to take a precaution against filters when I mention the c word, but 'black' will pass. Why is the c word so often used by men in reference to other men?

Frank Golding | 18 June 2010  

There is so much that is true in what Dr Tonkinson has written that I found myself marking each sentence with the tick of approval for its appositeness, clarity and brevity like a University tutor.

One point that has been mentioned sotto voce in the media that Johns' racial slurs on certain Queensland players were part of an alcohol-fuelled bonding/motivating session.

Alcohol as we all know is an anti-repressant. It can lubricate social intercourse for the good as people relax and shed their inhibitions.

However too much alcohol, or the consumption of alcohol by people especial senstive to its liberating effects, can lead to the expression of beliefs and attitudes that are normally suppressed. This expression of suppressed attitudes can lead not only to vilification but also to physical violence (one of the attractions apparently of Rugby League)

One only had to listen to the boorish and oafish remarks made in the media about the illegal punch-ups and scragging that occurred during State of Origin.
There are a few RL players who seem to have no other purpose than steamroll the opposition with no holds barred. If they can be stirred into a blind frenzy racial slurs will be used.

Uncle Pat | 18 June 2010  

Nathan Soucci and BW I am making an assumption that you, like myself are white, or at least can pass for white. That being the case we are hardly in a position to dictate to those who are obviously not white, how to respond to racial taunts or slurs. Many people have to live with this kind of behaviour from the dominant society on a daily basis. Until each of us has walked in the shoes of people who are constantly made to feel different, seen the taunts through their eyes, we speak out of the abundance of our ignorance when commenting.

Malcolm Wallace | 19 June 2010  

I thank Frank Golding for his comment and agree entirely with the point he makes. In an earlier draft of my article, I actually made a similar point, but it had to be left out because of the word limit.

Myrna Tonkinson | 20 June 2010  

I was passing through Coober Pedy when the 2000 Olympics was taking place, and stood in a pretty rough pub when Cathy Freeman won the 400m. The pub stood as one applauded. The next day, refueling the car for the drive home, the petrol station attendant asked if I had seen the 400m race. On learning that I had, he then voiced the opinion that Cathy Freeman should be shot for carrying the Aboriginal flag as well as the Australian flag around the stadium.

I replied that the Aborginal flag has been recognised in the Australian Parliament and that as such, it is an Australian flag. We argued over this for a while...I had two years teaching in an Aboriginal community in the Kimberley and I never saw, or heard, an Aboriginal person treat a white person as poorly as I saw white people treat Aboriginal people.

Timana Tahu showed great courage. Is there racism in this country? A lot? I think so. Just scratch beneath the surface.

Cameron Johns | 22 June 2010  

This is a very interesting article

Erin Sidhom | 01 September 2010  

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