Black and white isn’t black and white

The Goodes controversy continues to crackle and spark, and threatens to develop into a full-blown conflagration. It may turn out to be a watershed moment in Australia’s understanding of racism, but in the meantime it’s degenerated into some pretty ugly name-calling on both sides.

There are those on Goodes side believing he has been vilified, and those who think he’s a sanctimonious sook. Such divisions tend to simplification. They become binary, for and against, black and white, much of the complexity and pretty well all the subtlety lost in a storm of outrage.

I’m reminded by this simply by being a member of and observer of society at this time. I sit almost one out in my place of work as the person sympathetic to Goodes. What I’ve heard of my workmates (increasingly vocal) opinion on this tends to the opposite. They’re derisive of Goodes and those who support him. They’ll mock Goodes and make jokes of the situation. They shake their head at what they consider a confected and unreasonable controversy. Surprisingly Goodes, who has done nothing, neither complained nor publicly objected, is blamed, told to toughen up (“it’s only booing”), and stop bringing politics into sport.

As far as I can tell everyone sincerely believes the booing of Goodes has nothing to do with racism. The reasons I brought up in my earlier post are mentioned, about his staging, about his performance as Australian of the year, about the time he singled out the 13-year-old racist girl in the crowd. They dislike him, and that justifies the booing. No-one can understand, even setting the racist angle aside, that booing him week after week might be considered wrong.

This highlights the complexity of the situation, as well as the quirks of human nature (the enduring incapacity to empathise). This is not a binary situation.

Overt racism is only a small part of this issue. By that I mean that a minority stand there booing him because he is indigenous. The majority do it for other reasons, and it’s those reasons that justify their claims that it’s all a nonsense and nothing to do with racism. Well, they’re wrong.

I’m not about to stand here and accuse someone of being racist when they sincerely believe they’re not. The majority of the racism in this case is either covert, or the result of ignorance – which is where it becomes complex.

I reckon there are a bunch of fellow travellers who join in the booing each week for deep-seated reasons not even they can properly grasp, but related to Goodes being an occasionally outspoken representative of the indigenous community.

For the rest, and it may be as much as 50%, they do it for what they consider legitimate reasons. They wouldn’t do it by themselves, but when somebody else starts they join in. They may simply be imitating the mob, and with that innocent justification refuse any accusations of racism.

They, like most of the Australian community, are oblivious of the impact of racism. What to them seems an innocent and innocuous remark cuts deeply and is seen as being racially offensive. They express amazement and scepticism, and claim if they don’t it’s not intended to be racist, then how can it be called that?

This is the difficult paradigm to understand. Racism is in the eye of the offended. I’d have refused that concept once. I remember once defending an episode of black face, quite eloquently I thought, and refusing to accept other interpretations of it.

I read the other day – and have seen this repeated many times – of how the big, hairy, white skinned guy in the local footy team gets called ape or gorilla. That’s not racist. How can it be when you call a coloured man the same thing?

The difference is that it’s the language of historical oppression. For hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, blacks have been enslaved. They have been treated like chattels, even livestock, seen as sub-human, and inferior to their white master – cousins, or brothers, to apes and gorillas.

That’s just one example. There are hundreds of others. You and I as white, comfortable, entitled, have no conception of this. We cannot begin to grasp it. Just because it doesn’t exist for us doesn’t mean we should deny its existence. We can be excused for a certain degree of ignorance, but should be open to learn and understand.

This is my hope out of this – that we, the privileged white, become better educated in the complexities of racism. Just because we don’t see it or don’t intend it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That’s the lesson out of this. It’s the racism of ignorance, but it’s time we knew better.

In the meantime we should accept that if Goodes feels this is racism, then it is.

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