Calling it out: Our Australian rules?

In May 2013, Indigenous football player, Adam Goodes, was called an ‘ape’ by a teenaged spectator during a game of Australian Rules football. Approaching the boundary, he called out the offender, and for this, his career and mental health took a sharp and enduring downturn. In countless games that followed, Goodes was booed and jeered by thousands of spectators from the stands each time he approached or handled the ball.

This, ostensibly, because he had singled out the teen, he was subject to racial vilification off the field as well, by AFL figures and commentators. Goodes experienced racist behaviour up to, and eventually leading to, his retirement from the game in 2015.

Two Australian documentaries released this year have brought renewed attention to Goodes’ story, with an unapologetic interest in race.1 The Final Quarter charts key events and the commentary around them that would culminate to end Goodes’ football career. The Australian Dream tells Goodes’ personal story beyond football, and considers race relations in Australia beyond Goodes. Both films were a feature of conversations around football in the 2019 season that closed just a week ago. 

For me, Goodes’ experiences raise many questions about the state of racism in Australia today, but here I reflect on just one: why can’t we call it out?

(Not) calling it out

The interaction between Goodes and the teenager occasioned the much more dramatic events that were to come; the booing that followed would continue for over two seasons. At the time, there was much debate over whether or not the behaviour constituted racism. Both documentaries capture the striking incapacity of the AFL’s most important figures to name the booing behaviour for what it was. 

Racist remarks from commentators and AFL personalities themselves were explained away as ‘mistakes,’ ‘slips of the tongue,’ or not acknowledged as inappropriate at all. Most notably, Eddie McGuire suggested Goodes would be a suitable promoter of an upcoming King Kong musical. 

For many in Australia, participating in racism was irresistible. Admitting to it: impossible. Calling it out: exceptional.

Much of the ensuing response made a culprit of Goodes himself. He was accused of ‘staging for kicks,’ of an apparently inappropriate display of Indigenous culture with the performance of a war dance after scoring, and for his weakness in the face of abuse. He was, the argument went, a provocateur who had brought this on himself; there would be not a whiff of racism if Goodes could only behave.

(Not) knowing how it feels

I believe one reason we fail to call out racism is because many Australians don’t understand how it feels. 

For me, the most powerful line from The Australian Dream comes from an interview with Indigenous AFL retiree, Gilbert McAdam. He asks, “What would they know, what would they know, what would they bloody know about being a blackfulla?” How can you know how racism feels without having experienced it? How do you describe it if you have? 

This echoes Professor Mick Dodson’s remark in his TFS podcast interview: “It’s not always recognisable, it’s subtle, almost hidden … people who don’t have to live with racism everyday don’t recognise it.” 

In The Final Quarter, Indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant attempts to convey the “visceral experience of racism, not just as an abstract concept, but the mark it leaves on your body, the mark it leaves on your soul.” 

It has become contentious, or at least passé, to suggest that one’s positioning in the world creates a unique epistemological stance that may be inexplicable to others. This idea is captured by standpoint theory. In the Final Quarter, when shame sets in after Eddie McGuire’s remarks likening Goodes to King Kong, he ponders, “If I’m feeling it this morning, I can only imagine what Adam Goodes has felt all his life.” It may not be possible to really know racism without personally experiencing it.

Yet through the telling of his story, both films generate an intimacy and empathy with Goodes that seem to go at least some way in conveying what racism might feel like. Everyone I’ve spoken to about these films was stirred by them; many cried.

If we were more sensitive to racism’s effects, surely we would not part-take in it and we’d see the need to call it out?

‘A racist’ or a behaviour?

I think there are other reasons why racism is hard to call out. To me, a mistake we often make is in thinking of racism as an encounter between someone who is ‘a racist’ and someone who is subject or victim to one. 

The first issue here is to conceive of people, rather than behaviours, as racist. It makes admitting to racism an indelible, unalterable personality characteristic – or identity. Such an identity is not only imagined as fixed and permanent, but is obviously also stigmatised. To take this view means admitting to racism becomes not only very daunting, but for that reason also very unlikely.

This way of thinking about racism – as made up of a racist and a victim of racism – can lock the latter into a category as well. This does the dangerous work of making a victim of someone subject to racism. Assigning someone with such an identity further entrenches asymmetries in their relationship with the perpetrator. They’re made lasting object of the act. In a closing line of The Final Quarter, commentator and retired player Nathan Buckley counters, “This [racism] can’t be his story.” I hope in writing this I am not making it so. 

Viewing racism as made up of racist acts could therefore be more productive. Not only can we more easily admit to committing a racist act, but we can reflect on, learn from, and try to make amends for a behaviour. Less the case for an identity. (And indeed, ‘identity,’ variously understood, is where this all begins.)  

My point here isn’t at all to absolve racist behaviour, but to think about it and its perpetrators as less totalising.

The age-old adage that evil triumphs when good people do nothing reminds us we are all implicated. There are often not only two parties, but on-lookers or by-standers who bear witness to these acts. Goodes was booed by a sea of essentially faceless spectators, and much of their power derived from how this diffused their accountability. While they should absolutely have taken responsibility for their behaviour, perhaps an equal affront was the inability of on-lookers to call out and condemn it.

Keep looking in the rear view mirror

As Mick Dodson said, “we don’t look back enough to go forward. We need to look in the rear view mirror everyday.” 

The documentaries about Adam Goodes capture and abbreviate an array of events on and off the ground that might make recognising and responding to racism seem straightforward. The release of the films and the ensuing national reflection they appeared to invoke might also give the impression that this chapter in our story is now closed, but I think this is far from true.

We would do well to remember that the game Goodes was playing originates from Marn grook or marngrook, a game played by Indigenous people that almost certainly preceded Australia’s invasion. Like many celebrated aspects of contemporary Australian life, the game we now call Aussie Rules has its (mostly unacknowledged) origins in an Indigenous Australian practice.

[Cover Image of Adam Goodes sourced by Wikimedia Commons: Timellis09 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

[In-text image of Adam Goodes sourced at wikimedia Commons: Rulesfan at English Wikipedia]

  1. The Final Quarter, with accompanying educational resources, will be donated to all Australian schools and sports clubs. With the premiere of The Final Quarter, the Australian Human Rights Commission launched the following conversation guide about racism: []

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