Race, racism, racialisation and denialism within Australian culture and society

To talk about race and racism is fraught because it invariably means to risk getting peoples’ shackles up warranting a quick rebuke. As prickly subject matter, they touch a nerve to trigger denial, which I know from experience. In 2008, I submitted a letter to a progressive newspaper to raise concerns on the misrepresentation of an Aboriginal (indigenous) athlete, recently recruited to the Hawthorn Football Club, in a feature article. Among other things, Hawthorn in essence took a ‘punt’ but was worried that their gamble might not pay off since the player was seen as ‘too much his own man’ – reflective I suggested of the racial stereotype of Aboriginal players as ‘un-coachable’. Though my letter was not published, a senior journalist penned a scathing article refuting my concerns naming me an “ideological fool who lives in an ivory tower” and my thinking “specious”. I would not have minded so much if my letter was published.

In 2003, I was a research assistant to an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded research on the recruitment of indigenous athletes to the Australian Football League (AFL), led by Victoria University Associate Professor Chris Hallinan. We spoke with the then Hawthorn Recruiting Officer, who revealed that players had expressed concern on the club’s lack of Aboriginal players. Part of the explanation for this he revealed could be traced back to the club’s reticence to recruit Aboriginal players on the grounds that they were “unreliable”. Recruiters were instructed from ‘above’ not to select players with “skin darker than mine”. Turning this on its head, Hawthorn selected some of the Aboriginal greats including Lance Franklin, Shaun Burgoyne and Cyril Rioli. The recent bombshell review of Hawthorn made public by the ABC reveals the sham behind Hawthorn’s public face of ‘family’. However, the Hawthorn Football Club is not the problem, it is a symptom of a greater problem of continued racialisation of Aboriginal people in Australia.

The single most pressing issue, as I see it, from my perspective of over 25 years research on the subject of race and racism in Australian sport is a failure within society, and thereof the AFL community, to fully understand what actually constitutes racism. For example, a common misconception is of racism being the sole domain of the ignorant ‘racist’. This lets everyone off the hook and with it the onus of reflection not just on the ‘racist’ individual, whose conduct is overt, but also from the broader standpoint of community, nation and society. There is no shame in getting it wrong, which is easy, by the way, including for people who consider themselves informed. What matters is coming to the realisation of this and being the bigger person.

It is important to appreciate that the problem goes beyond the overt ‘racist’ since racism can arise out of good intentions, to assist Aboriginal players for example. As horrible as what has been alleged, and being cautious of not wanting to defend the Hawthorn Football Club, it is conceivable that the individuals under scrutiny acted out of a distorted sense of trying to do right by the players concerned in terms of their careers. Of course, they did the exact opposite by totally neglecting what is important to the wellbeing of the players involved, that being their family.

The point of this is that stigmatic aghast of indignation at a perceived accusation of being ‘racist’ is self-indulgent. If anything, it simply reinforces the manifestation of denial. And, so it is in this context that the Hawthorn bombshell represents yet another a watershed moment for the AFL to get it right. This time by reflecting critically on its own unexamined biases and assumptions and how they then filter in a downward trajectory to embed themselves within the AFL community at large. The purpose here is not about blame but about acknowledgment.

This is no easy task though. For starters the language of race and racism is deeply problematic which means that substantive change cannot take hold without a full reckoning in terms of what constitutes race and racism. Race is a social construct which can be purposeful for demarcating identity and experience. Thus, the mentioning of race is not by necessity ‘racist’. It can be positive.

Racism is commonplace, spoken about widely, but if asked few could produce a definition that would stand up to scrutiny. Seeing as I have opened the door to this, I shall be obliged to start. Much of the misunderstanding of racism occurs in challenges of identification. On the one hand, for instance, it is appropriate to offer critical commentary – in good faith – on Aboriginal policy for instance without this being racially motivated. On the other, it is near impossible for Aboriginal claimants to prove their racialized discrimination because the burden of this always comes down to having to prove intent. For this reason, I deploy the notion of racialisation to signal shifting contexts in patterns of racialist thinking and behaviour so as to offset simplistic discourse of racism confined to an unshifting, standalone monolith of an -ism.

It is not just knuckle heads who get it wrong. Proponents of anti-racism do so as well in describing racism as systemic and institutional since this implies that institutional or systemic racism differs to other forms. But racism by definition is systemic and institutional. After all, we do not say systemic gender inequality. It is either present or it is not. It is within this context I contend that the notion of the ‘racist’ is also commonly and problematically spoken about, which I then place in inverted commas so as to foreshadow the need to examine what it is that is meant by the ‘racist’.

Racism (racialisation) does indeed take many forms. The essence of this, however, remains the same in that it cannot occur, or deliver its punch, without a foundation of inequality from which to launch. Racialisation is perpetuated from the top. That said, the contours of racialisation change constantly so that understandings must also change. In the good old days of racial vilification of Aboriginal players, it was overt and yet vehemently denied or justified as a legitimate part of the game. Before that, and to some extent still, Aboriginal players are recruited to fill niche positions on the field – the magician who kick goals from impossible angles – but don’t put them in key positions because they don’t possess the cognitive capacity for that (this is known as positional segregation). They are unreliable though such stereotyping is slowly being disrupted.

Another crucial component to misunderstanding racialisation is that it cannot exist if there is no intention to discriminate. But this ignores the reality that racialisation can occur by neglect – in the failure to act appropriately to ensure the rights of people, namely people of colour, for safety, respect, or inclusion, are upheld. Then there is liberal, or good intentions, racialisation in which we are predisposed to saying positive things about Aboriginal players being natural talents, for example, which denies that they work hard at being ‘natural’.

Racialisation nowadays is just as likely to be injected into discourse underscored by patronising concern. This may be hard to see because it is objective, subtle and layered beneath postulations of neutrality so as to be explained away. In the case of Adam Goodes, spectators who booed rationalised their behaviour on the basis that booing could not be ‘racist’ because there was no explicit reference to race and that it was not the Aboriginal man being booed but the man himself. Yet, Goodes stood proudly and played as an Aboriginal man. Another dodgy rationalisation uttered to deny booing was that we cannot be ‘racist’ if our team has Aboriginal players. The problem with this is that having Aboriginal players in one’s team makes no difference to stopping abuse of players in other teams. Players are loved when they perform and abused when they cross the invisible boundary of their acceptance. Clearly, it can be said that obnoxious behaviour is exhibited when it suits. That is, it is merely withheld for another time or place.

The most common misconception of racism is this amounts to the discriminatory or differential treatment of people on the basis of race. Two things come to mind. Firstly, it implies that discrimination is wrong yet this overlooks the fact that discrimination can be positive. To discriminate in support of people of need where and when there is a need is to be welcomed. Secondly, resentment arising from the misperception some people unfairly receiving more than their fair share of the public purse pie is misplaced. Overlooked here is that it is easy to target the marginalised whilst at the same time failing to recognise some of the means by which the wealthy retain their advantages at the expense of those in need.

Racism (racialisation), as commonly taken, is not about treating people differently on the basis of race, the misnomer here being that to treat people the same represents the end of racism. The problem with this is that some people are treated more of the ‘same’ than others. In any case, racialisation is about failing to afford people, whose experience is characteristically of disregard, dignity and respect. All racisms (racialisations) are not the same. They can range from expressions of bias to the enactment of outright racial brutality. The slights hurt just as much as the big stuff.

Racialisation is perpetuated by denial which also takes many forms. A common rationalisation uttered to neutralise claims of racism is that it goes both ways. Blacks can also be ‘racist’ toward whites. Perhaps they can but in the scheme of things they do not generally have access to institutional power to ensure that white people are oppressed or disadvantaged for their benefit.

Another form of denialism is that Australia is not a ‘racist’ society. It is just that there are ignorant ‘racists’ who give everyone else a bad name. They only need to be educated out of their ignorance. It is impossible, though, for a nation to be a bit ‘racist’. Either it is or it is not. As such, the ignorant ‘racist’ cannot exist without the enabling structures of society to support it.

Yet another form of denial is the passing over of Australia’s history of race relations which has the effect of de-historicising the accumulative weight of experience of racialisation. For instance, an incident of casual racial slurring may be passed off as a one-off and nothing to get upset about. Judging by recent exposes on the unedifying experiences of champion players Eddie Betts and Maurice Rioli, who retired from Hawthorn at the peak of his career in 2018, there were lots of ‘one-offs’. Little has changed.

Denialism reveals itself in other ways too. Being well aware that it is unacceptable to openly slur another person, some have taken to doing this on the sly by making a statement or asking a vague, but heavily loaded, question about Aboriginal people for everyone to hear. This puts Aboriginal people in a near impossible position with little unenviable choice but to confront or keep quiet. Most, I imagine choose the latter so as not to make waves but end up hurting themselves in the process. One has to ask, why does someone choose to diminish another human in that way?

The masking of racial venting plays its ugly hand in other contexts as well. Following growing outcry on the racial vilification of Aboriginal players by opponents and spectators in the late 1990s, instead of calling them “black bastards” some took calling them “green bastards” or the like. Very creative. Then of course there was the booing of Goodes, which was not ‘racist’ because non-Aboriginal players are also booed and because there is no explicit reference to race in “boo”. Rubbish. The booing was vociferous of a pack mentality. It was nasty and sustained. I cannot say that this kind of racialisation is unique to Australia, but there is most certainly a pattern to be seen.

Over the years, players, club presidents, coaching and recruiting staff, and spectators have faced scrutiny of the public glare for their inability to see their bias. On air off the cuff remarks are trivialised to nothing more than a harmless joke without taking into account that someone or a community is inevitably on the receiving of the joke. Fun is had at their expense. Predictably, we can expect to see the meaningless and heavily rationalised apology from a tearful club representative in the vein of ‘I apologise for any offence caused…”

Instead, the ‘joker’ ought to lift the stigma of accusation of being a ‘racist’, to have the courage to acknowledge the persistence of racialisation, in all its forms. To recognise that measures to “stamp out racism” have been hardly more than a stop-gap going back to the introduction of the Racial and Religious Vilification Code of Conduct in 1995. The code was riddled with flaws underpinned by confidential mediation, which served the accused perpetrator not the claimant. In all of this, the primary, though obscured objective, appears to be to redeem the accused of the shame of wrongdoing of being a ‘racist’. This is outcome driven. Something to announce for the news feed. The problem with this is that the perpetuation of racialisation remains unexamined given that aggrieved players must again continue to carry the can for the resolve of greater society.

Instrumentalist approaches to solving racialisation are inadequate. Solutions to increase Aboriginal representation within administrative frameworks and to make Aboriginal athletes feel included through the Indigenous Round, for example, are fine. But they are not enough. They are not the silver bullet which the Hawthorn affliction of callous mistreatment of its players so clearly shows up. Until such time as this is reckoned with more AFL club scandals will likely surface.

The sanitised corporate grist of “do better” implies that the foundations are good and that only extra effort is needed though I get that reviewers may be weary of putting key people offside with direct language. The solution is not to do better but rather to undertake a complete overhaul starting with unqualified acknowledgment on the failures of institution, and to act appropriately accordingly. Declaration coming from the top without a hint of patronising double speak would go a long way to ensure the beginnings of the safety and integrity of its players. To be frank about where and how missteps have been made has nothing to do with blame and everything to do with establishing an environment where clear enunciations of what constitutes racism (racialisation) to the AFL community are articulated. The AFL cannot expect the clubs to do the work without putting themselves to the task. It is the role and responsibility of administration to look at themselves, set the standard and uphold to it. Nothing less will do. Then there will be no need for denialism dressed up as tearful offerings of paltry promises to come or mealy-mouthed apologies.

I opened this reflective piece recounting the backhander I got for daring to suggest that a progressive newspaper, in its well-intentioned efforts to talk up the emerging presence of Aboriginal athletes in the AFL, unwittingly drew on racial stereotyping of Aboriginal athletes. In doing so, I was the ‘racist’ for mentioning race. No personal dig on my part, I was simply trying to raise awareness. I gathered from this that a refusal to hear others is in itself the shape of denialism.

Stella Coram

Sample of related published works:

Coram, S. & Hallinan, C. (2017) ‘Critical race theory and the orthodoxy of race neutrality: Examining the denigration of Australian indigenous athlete Adam Goodes’, Australian Aboriginal Studies,’ no. 1, pp. 99-111.

Coram, S. (2015) The Real and the Unreal: Hyper Narratives of Indigenous Athletes and the Changing Significance of Race, Second Edition. Illinois: Common Ground.

Coram, S. (2013) ‘The paradox of fairness and the inverting of racial discrimination in Australian sport’, Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 16 (3): 2-21.

Coram, S. (2007) The Real and the Unreal: Hyper Narratives of Indigenous Athletes and the Changing Significance of Race (Common Ground 2007).

Coram, S. (2007) ‘Evolutionary hegemony and the “aping” of the indigenous athlete’, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, no. 42 (4) pp. 391- 409.

Coram, S. (2001) ‘The burden of Australian Indigenous athletes: teaching non-Indigenes about racism’, Conference of Indigenous Peoples of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Hawaii and the United States, Common Ground, Altona, pp. 89-100.

Coram, S. (1999) ‘Reclaiming Aboriginal identity through Australian Rules football: A legacy of the “stolen generations”’, The Contribution of Sport to the Protection of Human Rights Conference, Sydney: University of Sydney Press, pp. 159-64.

Hallinan, C., Bruce, T., and Coram (1999) ‘Up front and beyond the centre line: Integration of Aborigines in elite Australian Rules football’, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, December, 1999, 34 (4) pp. 369-84.