White Australia needs to take responsibility for reconciliation too

While Adam Goodes is the public face of the debate, almost any Indigenous Australian can speak of the day-by-day experience of a lack of respect for who they are. AAP/Paul Miller

The controversy about Adam Goodes’ expression of his cultural inheritance provides a litmus test of race relations in Australia. Rather than embracing what is an inherently Australian dance, and sharing in the AFL footballer’s celebratory moment, for months the response has been one of outrage.

For at least some Australians, it seems that Indigenous culture is acceptable only as an object of consumption for tourists visiting the remote north.

There is a hypocrisy in Australia’s demand that to receive any entitlements that come with the special status of “Aboriginal”, people must continue to live their culture – yet if an Aboriginal person displays their culture in a way that challenges mainstream comfort zones, their actions are deemed inappropriate and vilified.

There is a hypocrisy in Australia’s bewailing of the scarcity of proud Indigenous men and its instant demonising of a public display of Indigenous pride and power as arrogant and provocative.

Our current research on the views of a diverse group of Aboriginal residents of Darwin on white Australia and race relations provides some insights. Almost all are interested in reconciliation, but they are tired of being the ones who must make this happen.

Hear what Indigenous people have to say

Much of the media coverage has centred on the question of whether the booing of Goodes is racially motivated, but the issue goes beyond racism to the question of the place of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Australia. Who gets to define appropriate behaviour? What does this controversy say about whether mainstream Australia perceives Indigenous people as equal and integral to the nation?

Most of the debate has centred on the views of non-Indigenous Australians, but non-Indigenous Australia needs to listen to what Indigenous people have to say.

In the interview phase of our research, most of our 45 respondents speak of their sense of separation from white Australia. Even if they live in the same physical space, they occupy different worlds. Their perception is that white people “think they’re better than us”; white disregard and disrespect are an everyday experience.

One respondent said:

When I go out … I just want to go to that place and come straight back without any hassles … It’s how [non-Indigenous] people are raised, you know, how you raise your child to be against Indigenous mob.

Many spoke of the incompatibility of Indigenous and non-Indigenous values, the destructive social consequences of some white values and the experience of being controlled by a culture not their own:

As soon as we move out of the house we’re white. We feel like we’re in a straightjacket. We can’t be who we want to be.

They feel that when it comes to who defines Australia, there is no space for the Indigenous view:

You always hear white Australians … but you never hear what the Indigenous have got to say because … we’re not running the headlines.

They want the non-Indigenous population to take responsibility for learning about Indigenous culture and to consider how they might be viewed from the outside. They point out that this is what Indigenous people face every day under the critical gaze of the mainstream.

Instead of non-Indigenous Australians getting defensive about the naming of racism, Indigenous people want them to show a desire to understand and accept Indigenous people on their terms and to recognise that indigeneity is intrinsic to Australia’s social fabric.

There is much in the Goodes controversy that confirms these experiences. The events capture the daily grind of race relations in this country. The refusal of so many public commentators to name the racist nature of Goodes’ treatment, the unwillingness of the AFL leadership to take responsibility for it, Goodes’ efforts to improve relations by meeting the young girl who had abused him, and his concern for her despite his obvious hurt, attest to a one-sided nature of race relations in Australia that is concerning.

The poor treatment of Goodes went on for months, as did the denials of its racist nature. It was only when Goodes, one of Australia’s most celebrated athletes, took leave from the game that support flowed in.

Displays of pride met with hostility

Goodes joins a long list of elite black athletes whose efforts to challenge white hegemony have met with attempts to silence them. When American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics they were expelled from the Olympic Village. The silver medallist, Australian Peter Norman, supported them and his career also suffered as a result.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were punished for their protest, as was Peter Norman for supporting them.

Cathy Freeman’s display of the Aboriginal flag during her victory lap at the 1994 Commonwealth Games attracted similar criticism and controversy. She was not the last athlete to be rebuked for such a show of pride.

That a proud Aboriginal man can divide the nation by performing an Aboriginal celebration on the footy field is a sobering reminder of how far reconciliation in this country has to go. For Australia to be a genuinely global nation it needs to change its self-understanding, the belief that there is only one valid culture in Australia. This is particularly important for Indigenous people because they are Australia’s First Nation and have never ceded sovereignty.

The support now being displayed for Goodes is heartening. But Australia would be richer if, instead of engaging in denigration and denial of the contribution of Indigenous culture to the nation, we embraced expressions of Indigeneity as an opportunity.

It has taken an Aboriginal man – Warren Mundine, the prime minister’s Indigenous adviser – to suggest that sports games begin with an Aboriginal war dance, but it is time for non-Indigenous people to drive acts of reconciliation.

These need to go beyond gestures of inclusiveness to a mature and informed debate about whose space this is, who has the right to express themselves in it, what is positive or problematic in both black and white culture and how we can all learn from one another.


The authors will be one hand for an Author Q&A between 5 and 6pm on Friday, August 7. Post your questions in the comments section below.