It’s been a strange old week, where it started with a 13 year old girl learning very quickly just what saying “ape” to an Indigenous man actually means. Eddie McGuire certainly knew what it meant – I doubt Eddie has moved more swiftly to an opposition’s dressing room than he did that night. This moment reminded me strongly of that moment where the production team at Hey Hey it’s Saturday very quickly realised how having a blackface act belonged more to the 1890s than in the 21st Century world.
Flash forward to a quiet Wednesday morning in Austereoland at MMM, where it seems that Eddie McGuire had a few things running around his mind. I’m guessing not least of all the number of meetings, commitments and events he goes to – but also Adam Goodes. Up pops the words “King Kong the Musical” and a thought creeps into his mind “oh, in the old days, the promoters of that would have had tried to use Adam Goodes as a bit of a joke”. Those old days being the days when blackface was still “funny”.
Most of us would have dismissed those thoughts and known that such a cultural shift can’t be explained without causing offence, especially in the bubbling pace and tone of breakfast radio. It may have been something for a history essay maybe – but not for a widely listened to radio station where such discussions cannot be done with the depth needed. Hence the mess that Eddie waded into, out outlined here.
One of the problems with McGuire’s explanation is that he said it was “a slip of the tongue”. As Richard Colless of the Sydney Swans correctly pointed out though, this wasn’t a slip of the tongue. This was quite a few words. a thought pattern. It was a thought pattern that tells us plenty about the way we talk about race in Australia. That to McGuire it was fine to talk about casual racism of the type of which McGuire was referring in a lighthearted fashion on a jokey, blokey radio station. That to compare a human being to a primate is ok, as long as it’s done in a lighthearted tone and context. It’s not a slip of the tongue, it’s a slip of the way many people of Anglo Celtic heritage think and speak.
An impressive side effect of this incident was the appearance of Collingwood player Harry O’Brien. After this tweet about casual racism criticising McGuire:
He was on AFL 360, pitted against his club’s president. The key point of his response was of how larrikinism is used in Australia to mask casual racism – that it’s “lighthearted” and “not serious” and the like – that the targets of these daily pieces of racism should just accept their lot and laugh along. In what was an impressive array of comments, he also spoke of the demonising of asylum seekers by society and how it discriminates. He didn’t miss his targets and well worth a watch if you can see it – some of it is here.
There has been some blowback on O’Brien in the aftermath of his comments, especially after his comments directed at Tom Hawkins, which were unfortunate and discriminatory towards those who experience weight problems. It should be pointed out, though, that he quickly realised his mistake and apologised. Those who practice daily casual, indirect racism usually don’t. From what I have seen in the community, it’s usually framed as “only a joke” and “no harm was done – he was ok with it”.
If anything, this week has shown us that people who have experienced institutionalised, previously accepted casual racism delivered in a larrikin accent are starting to say “No, I’m not ok with it”. It’s also provided high school teachers with a whole load of new material to show their students precisely what racism is and how it affects its targets. And that’s not a bad thing.