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The Goodes and Eddies of unconscious racism

By Michel Poelman - posted Monday, 3 June 2013

Imagine it is you walking on the field under the gaze of some 40,000 or so spectators, and you hear a young girl's voice shouting the word 'ape' at you. What would you do? Your options come down to ignoring what you heard, or pointing out what happened and becoming the centre of the nation's attention and risking harm to a 13 year old girl and/or being ridiculed for making a big issue out of a silly comment by her.

In that moment, on the Melbourne Collingwood sports grounds, Adam Goodes, made the right call.

Some may want to frame this as an over-reaction to a kid's stupid remark. It wasn't. Goodes' reaction highlights that human deficiencies, left to their own devices, create harms that cut deep. Goodes did not stand up only for his own humanity, he stood up for his parents, his brothers, sisters, their children. Nobody deserves to be degraded by people who look different and who somehow feel that they are superior because of their skin color. If we turn a blind eye to such abuse, we accept that groups that are different from "our own group" are in fact less than us. As a consequence we should then also accept that our children should be degraded by other groups. None of us want that. This understanding forms the basis of civilisation. Therefore it is imperative that we stand up against racism in all it forms.


Goodes stood up for all of human diversity. He stood up for our kids to be treated with the respect that every human deserves and to not be degraded because of their looks or any particular characteristic they may have.

Goodes could have inflamed a sensitive issue, but clearly he has a deep understanding of the roots of racism as well as having great empathy. He emphasizes to the community at large to not demonise the 13 year old girl who racially abused him: "she is just an innocent kid". At 13 a kid is not aware of the effects of the things they do, certainly not, if what she does is accepted within her day-to-day environment. Would she have said what she said if her parents did not condone such behaviour in their daily conversations? If her friends did not behave in similar ways? The fact that it was a 13 year old girl to make the racial slur accentuates that racism lives in innocent minds.

Are her parents to blame for her ignorance? To a certain extent they are. Adults are expected to be consciously aware of the fact that they would not like to be treated in this way themselves and therefore they are expected to instil that attitude in their children. But blaming the parents is easier than understanding them. Blaming the parents does not resolve anything. If we want to move towards a better world we need to understand why are her parents and friends are not acting in sync with a civilised society.

The answer is that our first impressions can determine how we look at the world for the rest of our lives if we are not guided/educated to become consciously aware of how we think and if we haven't learned to correct mistakes in our thinking.

Unfortunately how we think, how we can improve our thinking, the role of emotions on our thinking are not subjects in our educational curriculae.

The parents of the girl may well have 'inherited' racist impressions from their parents at a time when racism was the default way of thinking. These first impressions have then been cultivated through selective socialising (we prefer to socialise with people who are more 'like us') and a limited education has prevented psychological self-discovery.


Not so long ago white people saw themselves as the superior race. Arguably the whole concept of race is a fictitious construct, as from a genetic perspective differences between individuals from the 'same race' can be larger than the genetic differences between 'races'. As 'white' Europeans happened to become the group that owns most of the world's wealth in the 20th Century, they saw this as confirmation and/or justification of their belief in racial superiority. Today those of white European descent are hoping that the Chinese will not make the same mistake.

Globalisation and education (largely due to witnessing multiple genocides) has made people aware that the idea of a superior race is a fallacy. And yet, a 13 year old Australian girl can feel that it is ok to call a man an ape because of his skin colour.

Clearly globalisation and education has left pockets of racism untouched. Or did it leave a much broader under-current of racism?

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About the Author

Michel Poelman is the Principal of Thinking4Results, a boutique consultancy that provides workshops and consulting to help clients develop high-order thinking. You can email him at

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