I have a confession to make: since moving to Australia in early 2010 I have fallen in love... with Australian Rules (AFL).
Now, I am a New Zealander, a 'Kiwi', and the unwritten rules of masculinity in that country - actually, it probably is written somewhere, most likely in the fine print on our birth certificate, is that we a) must love rugby, b) to be a real man, must play rugby, c) if we are not good enough or able for some reason to play rugby, we must love it above all other things, and believe that All Black's are God's, and d) if you don't love rugby then at least you should support rugby league. I use to play rugby at school, and league when I was older; neither of which I was any good at - my true loves were, and remain, athletics and football (the real football, with a round ball), and now AFL.
Anyway, to the point: I moved to Australia and saw this weird game in TV, Australian Rules, or aerial ping pong as its detractors sometimes refer to it, and I didn't understand it at all but grew to love the skill and athleticism of the players. And, in a nod to my changing sensibilities about violence in sport, there was none of the 'bring back the biff' bullshit that periodically arises from the mouths of retired league and rugby players who lament their precious game going 'soft', of becoming 'feminised'.
Another reason I now watch AFL, is because of all the fantastic Aboriginal players in the sport, and the way, at least outwardly, the 'game', the clubs and supporters appear to appreciate them, and make room for them to express themselves as Aboriginal men. I say outwardly because of course, as with any issues relating to 'race' and ethnicity in Australia,the 'truth' is somewhat different.
Cue last weekend and what is called the 'Indigenous round' of the AFL; cue Adam Goodes, a fantastic Aboriginal player for the Sydney Swans (and in case anyone dismisses this blog because I am 'probably a Swans fan', I support Carlton, and yes, we are having a crap year), and the 2014 Australian of the Year, scoring a goal and doing what was variously described as an Aboriginal war dance, a challenge; what we'd call in New Zealand a haka. Cue the usual dickheads, mainly white, middle class male media and sports commentators going nuts, accusing Goodes of behaving inappropriately, of goading opposition supporters (from my club, Carlton). Cue the village idiot of Melbourne, Andrew Bolt crying about how he'd get in trouble for making such gestures: actually, his reenactment of Goodes' 'war dance' made it look like he was trying to have a crap rather than making threats; but I digress. And cue the usual over-the-top sulking by many non-Indigenous Australian's whenever a 'person of colour' - they don't need to be Aboriginal - take it upon themselves to express their Indigeneity, their culture in a way they deem appropriate, and not at a time and in a way that non-Indigenous peoples consider 'appropriate'.
I've been thinking all week about writing this blog, on this topic, and thinking about how I would express my feelings about Goodes' action and responses to it. Then I read the Sydney Morning Herald as I always do on Sunday morning (hint to anyone reading this; of all the mainstream papers here in Australia, the Herald is in my view the best in reporting Aboriginal issues, although it isn't hard to win that award here, given the white privileged rubbish that gets printed in most of the others), and got to Peter Fitzsimmons' column in which, rather than express his own views on the issue, ceded the ground to a higher authority, the political commentator Waleed Aly who in Peter's estimation said it "better and more eloquently than the rest of us could dream of...."; and since I agree I am going to follow Peter's path and give the floor at this point to Aly, who stated the following about the reaction to Goodes':
'The thing about it that has mystified me all week - people talking all week about , 'Why are people booing Adam Goodes?' as though there is some mystery about it - there is no mystery about this at all. And it's not as simple as it being about race - it's about something else. It's about the fact that Australia is generally a very tolerant society until its minorities demonstrate that they don't know their place'.
'And at the moment, the minute someone in a minority position acts as if they're not a mere supplicant, then we lose our minds. And we say, you gotta get back in your box here, And that's why Adam Goodes ruffles feathers - its not because he's controversial, not because he's a provocateur, none of that. It's because he actually says I'm going to say something and I'm going to express Aboriginality and I'm going to do it at a time and a place in which sort of the vanilla velour cover of Australian society doesn't cope well with it very well....'.
'We have seen this before. What happens is that the minute an Indigenous man stands up, and is something other than compliant, the backlash is huge and it is them who are creating division, destroying our culture, and that is ultimately what we boo. We boo our discomfort....'.
Cue the Australian/New Zealand criminology conference in Auckland in 2012 and an incident between myself and a professor from an Australian university I have written about in a previous blog who, when criticised by me in a forum where he made uninformed comments about the status of Maori in New Zealand, told me and others that I had played 'the race card'. In doing so he was implying that I had used my Aboriginality to silence his views simply because he was white, when in actual fact I would have slapped him down regardless of his colour; when you start by saying 'I don't know a lot about Maori', and then proceed to talk crap, you deserve to be challenged. In the previous blog I tried to explain this guys behaviour in terms of an attempt to force attention away from his stupid, uninformed comments and back on to me as the 'unreasonable' Maori critic.
The Goodes incident, and in particular Waleed Aly's wonderful commentary, has made me think that perhaps there was more going on here than diverting attention: what our privileged professor was doing was railing against an Indigenous man ignoring the conventions of the profession, the discipline and the academy, that we defer to professors as though they are faultless and all-knowing. In other words, in speaking up in an open forum and challenging his perspective, I moved outside of that comfortable box so many white privileged academics in Australia like us to be in - as supplicants to their uninformed comments on the 'Aboriginal context', as names on their crap ARC grants, and so forth. The individual concerned played the 'race card' because I had not played 'the race game'; I was an uppity Maori boy who acted above his station and needed to be slapped down. This I can tell you will never happen, and long may Adam Goodes express himself as he sees fit, although I'd really like it if he could stop playing so well against my beloved Carlton.