Racism comes in many forms: overt and covert, crude and subtle. The harms of racism also come in many forms. We know from a large body of research that racism can lead to stress, negative emotions, psychological damage, even physiological effects.
We don’t always focus, however, on racism’s impact on our civic health. What I mean by this is the impact racism can have on the civility and cohesion of our society. Because when someone is subjected to racism, it can have the effect of undermining their standing as a fellow member of our community, and can have a fundamental impact on their freedom.
Racism can make people feel that they are not able to speak out in a way that they otherwise might. It can inhibit their ability to go out, or feel safe in public places.
In other words, the experience of racism undermines the assurance of security to which every member of a good society is entitled; the sense of confidence that everyone will be treated fairly and justly; that everyone can walk down the street and conduct their business without fear of abuse or assault, or without feeling that they have to keep their heads down.
This dimension of racism should remind us of its connection to power. Racism is something that is used to reduce, diminish and humiliate its victims. And when it does exist, some people benefit from it. The beneficiaries of racism may be direct: often, the perpetrators of racism do what they do because it can make them feel more powerful.
Then there are those who are the passive or indirect beneficiaries of racial power. Some may benefit from the status quo without even realizing it. Some may enjoy the benefits of a social privilege bound up in race.
There is more than one way, of course, that power manifests in conversations about race. Often, race can be brought to the fore when people seek to challenge power.
We have seen this through the example of footballer Adam Goodes, who for much of this year has been subjected to constant booing from opposition supporters at AFL matches. The booing has been a recent phenomenon. It appears only to have begun after Goodes took exception to being called an ape by a young spectator at the MCG in 2013 – and to have grown after Goodes was named Australian of the Year for 2014. The booing has further intensified since May, after Goodes performed an Aboriginal war dance during a match in the AFL’s Indigenous Round.
The booing of Adam Goodes has involved an element of racism, even if some say it occurs because spectators disapprove of Goodes’s playing style. Clearly, the booing has coincided with the public stand that he has taken on matters of racism and Indigenous affairs. If the booing was to do with Goodes’s playing style, why was there not booing for the first decade or so of his career? If Goodes has such an objectionable style, how is that he won the AFL’s Brownlow Medal – the decoration for the league’s best player – on two occasions? How is it that such a champion and statesman of the game is being treated like a pantomime villain?
It is strange, too, that the denial of racism has been typically accompanied by such intense feeling. Some have expressed deep hostility to any accusation that race and racial prejudice could be at play.
Let me be clear. There is no question that the booing is of an ugly and unedifying nature. It has everything to do with Goodes standing up against racism and speaking out about Indigenous issues. Goodes has been a public figure not afraid of challenging prejudice; not afraid of asking questions about Australian history and society. He has done it in ways that have made some people feel uncomfortable.
And it beggars belief to think that those booing somehow don’t know what they are doing. Not when there has been so much debate about it being tied to racial malice (last weekend, for instance, the booing in Perth was accompanied by some spectators being ejected for racial abuse aimed at Goodes). As others have noted, many may be joining in with the booing because they are seeking to put a proud Aboriginal man ‘in his place’ – because he has dared to speak out on issues touching on race.
Whatever the motivations, the booing has gone too far. The vilification has got to stop. Because it is doing damage – not just to the game of AFL but also to our society. With each match, each week, that this booing is tolerated, more and more people are being given licence to degrade, humiliate and intimidate; to believe that they can hound someone who speaks out about racism into silence. It is an unfortunate sign of the times that this has been allowed to go on for too long, to the point where there is now even the prospect that one of the greats of the sport may be booed into retirement.
It was welcome that the AFL has issued a statement making clear that racism had no place in the game, and that the league’s 18 club captains have taken a united stand in calling for an end to the bullying. If things do not improve (and assuming Goodes plays on), it may result in the players having to take matters into their own hands. In Europe, there have been occasions in football when teams have walked off the pitch in protest against racist abuse. What an indictment on our society it would be were things to reach such a point.
We should not forget as well the toll all this is having on the man in question. During the past two years I have had the opportunity to do some work with Adam Goodes. We are proud to have him as an ambassador of our ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign. His impact has been significant. In taking a stand against racism, he has inspired many, empowering others to do the same. And, partly because of that, he is now the target of despicable behaviour.
Adam Goodes is a champion of football, an advocate for human rights and a man of integrity. He deserves our respect. It is not him, but those targeting him, who deserve our contempt.
Tim Soutphommasane is Race Discrimination Commissioner. This is an edited extract from a speech delivered at the ANU on 29 July.