Throughout most of Australia’s modern history white society has worked hard to make Indigenous Australians disappear. In the early days it took the brutal forms of “dispersion” and taking children from their families.
But a people can be made invisible in subtler ways. Aborigines were declared a dying race, written out of the history books, banned from speaking their languages, confined to missions and sent to the margins of towns. Some have been dismissed as too white to be black or, if too black, turned into cultural relics captured on ashtrays or infantilised as noble savages.
In recent decades Indigenous people have watched as the uncovering of this history of killing and exclusion has been whitewashed as a “black armband” view of Australian history, so that not only the act of wiping them out but the memory of it too must be denied.
For a people rendered invisible, one of the most powerful forms of protest at their disposal is simply to makes themselves visible, to become a constant reminder. Their mere presence disturbs the fiction of their disappearance, the more so if their presence is not a silent one. And so Aboriginal people have used every celebration of European settlement to remind white society that its achievements are built on an original theft.
Those who believe Indigenous people should disappear are discomforted, sometimes deeply, by expressions of Indigenous presence. This is Adam Goodes’s crime. His critics defend their position by insisting that Australia is an equal society and that Goodes and all Aboriginal people should be “like everyone else”.
Many of his critics would never consciously discriminate against Aboriginal people – they may even have some as friends – but the demand for sameness is a more insidious form of racism because it hides behind a moral principle that no one can dispute. The appeal to “equality” gives the subtler form of racism deniability.
Adam Goodes has become the lightening rod for the kind of racism that insists that it is no such thing, a racism that is unable to see that it is not possible to draw a line under history and make it disappear, let alone wipe away ten thousand years of culture.
As well as the more obvious kind, Pauline Hanson was a master at the kind of racism rendered deniable by the appeal to equality. She claimed that all she wanted was for Aboriginal people to be treated “like everyone else”. But they are not like everyone else and insisting that they are is a means of dismissing everything of which Indigenous people are most proud. It is a stance that wants to see Indigenous people swallowed up into the mass.
This sentiment has been unleashed in the Adam Goodes story. Jeff Kennett made the argument at length on radio a few days ago. The crowds are booing Goodes not because they are racist, he insisted. They boo him because he said Australia Day should be called Invasion Day, because he called out a naïve 13-year old who called him an “ape”, and because he performed an Aboriginal dance.
It did not occur to Kennett that all of these incidents took place because Goodes is Indigenous, as expressions of his Aboriginality. No, for Kennett, Goodes brought it all on himself. If he had not mentioned Invasion Day, if he had ignored the racial slur and if he celebrated a goal in the usual way the football crowds would be happy and none of this would have happened.
In other words, if Goodes would just behave like white football players everything would be OK.
Kennett’s view is racist. It wants to see the completion of the 200-year process of making Indigenous people disappear. Because Goodes refuses to make his Aboriginality invisible Kennett is angry with him.
And with Kennett stand a gallery of privileged white men – Shane Warne, Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones – who have told Goodes and all Indigenous people that they should stop complaining and just get on with it, where “it” means being like white people.
Every time men like Andrew Bolt and John Howard declare that Australia is not a racist nation they drive a dagger into the heart of Indigenous Australia because they are robbing them of the truth of their history and the truth of their daily lives.
The extraordinary outpouring of support for Goodes proves that huge numbers of Australians understand that history matters and that racism should not hide behind calls for sameness. They are gratified – proud, even – that Indigenous people can express their pride in their culture and heritage, in their difference.
When all Australians accept that Indigenous people should not disappear, and that their distinctiveness is inseparable from the nation’s constitution, only then can we begin to believe that perhaps Australia is no longer a racist nation.