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Adam Goodes - The cutting taunt of a 13-year-old

By Michael Viljoen - posted Monday, 27 May 2013


In the opening match of last weekend's much touted 'Indigenous Round' of AFL football, dual BrownlowMedallist Adam Goodes stopped play during the final minutes of Sydney's 47-point win over Collingwood to single out a 13 year old girl to security following a racist and offensive taunt.

"It felt like I was in high school again being bullied. I don't think I've ever been more hurt by someone calling me a name. Not just by what was said, by who it came from," he announced at his follow up press conference. "A simple word like ape can cut me so deep. It's derogatory. It not only hurts me, it hurts all black people everywhere."

We sense his pain. Goodes wants to see racism done away with within our nation's history. "There's no place for racism in society. I'm going to continue to stand up here and keep saying it until it is completely rid of."

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Sporting authorities have often been called upon to censure the monkey jibe. In one famous on-field incident, Indian off-spinner, Harbhajan Singh, was suspended for three matches after the Sydney Test in 2008 after match referee Mike Procter (South Africa) said he was satisfied that Harbhajan had indeed used the word 'monkey' against Australian all-rounder, Andrew Symonds, and that he had intended to offend Symonds on the basis of his 'race'.

I could select numerous other examples of monkey insults coming from spectators off the field. But for the nation where I now work, Cameroon, it was the national hero (children here chant his name as they march into school) and Sydney Olympic Gold Medalist, Samuel Eto'o, who endured the peak of this ignominy at a 2006 Spanish league match between Barcelona and Real Zaragoza. A chorus of ape noises erupted from the stands whenever Eto'o touched the ball. It was the whole stadium chanting, not just a handful of fans.

In the country of my birth, South Africa, racism was legal and systematic. My father grew up knowing he could never represent his nation on the cricket field because of the race code stamped on his birth certificate, no matter how good he was. As a cricket administrator in the 1960s, he worked to integrate cricket amongst the different ethnic communities. Of course, that was totally unacceptable to the authorities at the time, which subsequently lead to our immigrating to Australia. My friends in Australia have difficulty understanding how I can possibly be classed 'coloured' considering the apparent fairness of my skin and eyes (especially as baldness removed my Afro fairly early), but such was the nonsense of the classification system.

We appreciate how racism must be countered actively, thoughtfully, and systematically. Post apartheid South Africa has passed legislation relating to hate speech without listing particular bogey words. In practice, South Africans know which terms were most commonly used to degrade and demean, and which are now actionable.

Goodes is an exemplar of what is best about Australian sport. He again was commended for his reaction to the race slur. "I don't want people to go after this girl. It's about education."

So what in particular is there in our education systems that we might need to address? What's clear here with the monkey taunts (though often not openly stated) is the acceptance of an evolutionary worldview, in which some people groups are less evolved than others-specifically, 'blacks' are less evolved than 'whites'. Without this assumption, the examples above (Goodes, Symonds, Eto'o) and others (particularly in European football where this slur has frequently occurred) don't carry any weight.

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So to take Goodes at his word means, for one thing, being willing to affront that beguiling image within the Western psyche, that of primates changing from stooped, dark haired apes into upright (usually fair skinned) humans. The classic Victorian depiction shows a progression from dark skinned, broad-nosed australopithecines to a more European-looking Homo sapiens. Such icons reside on wall charts near Bunsen burners, in that wing of the school where you are not so encouraged to question the 'facts' as presented.

A friend recently showed me her high school science text that she still had from the 1960s, with diagrams showing specifically that the European races were the most evolved. My Chinese friend joked that when they taught that subject in China, the Chinaman was the one shown on top of the pyramid.

Goodes is correct to say that education is the key. While I know better than most that the root causes of racism are many and complex, society today is reaping the consequences of what it has sown educationally through its promotion of Darwinian philosophy. Yet we are under no compulsion to continue to blindly follow this outdated 19th Century idea. If we do so uncritically, then we are deserving of its consequences.

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About the Author

Michael Viljoen studied mathematics and philosophy before working as a high school music teacher, and then a translator in Africa. He currently works for Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, an organisation committed to minority peoples and languages around the world in the fields of linguistics, literacy, and literature production.

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