‘The Adam Goodes Fire’ and the Myth of White Victimhood

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“Songlines”  NAIDOC 2016 Poster

By Mick Warren, PhD Candidate, The University of Sydney 

The 2016 NAIDOC theme, ‘Songlines: The Living Narrative of Our Nation’, offers the opportunity for all Australians to explore the richness of Indigenous cultures, particularly how tightly they interweave what the humanities would describe as an eco-critical perspective. Across cultural boundaries such perspectives offer insight into the scope of agency enlivening the natural world. This insight seems particularly salient at a point in history defined by anxieties around climatic forces which are, on the one hand, explicable in terms of their direct impact upon human lives but, on the other, must be examined along a non-human geological time scale. Understanding what emotional currents accompany Indigenous perspectives on the natural environment might provide some constructive criticism of the modern world’s seemingly perilous direction. For so long the foil of modernity, Indigenous people are rightfully wary of how their culture is represented and deployed to suit the discursive, practical and emotional needs of society more broadly.

This problematic history does not necessarily negate the fact there could be much to learn from investigating the emotional activity that exists in the depth and breadth of Indigenous investments in the natural landscape. But given the long-standing ambivalence towards Indigenous culture it is just as important to consider the complexities of non-Indigenous emotional attachments to landscapes and feelings towards Indigenous peoples and cultures. The importance of this line of inquiry is in fact implicit in NAIDOC week as an expression of Indigenous political and cultural will. In the process of becoming more open to the richness of Indigenous cultures, NAIDOC week offers the opportunity to explore the difficult emotional history defining Australian race relations from the frontier to more recent moments in time. In 2016, NAIDOC week marks the first anniversary of one such moment: the culmination of former Sydney Swans AFL player Adam Goodes’ frustration with the racial taunts that long haunted his presence in the public spotlight.

The recent Goodes saga can be understood through what Ann Curthoys has explained as the difficulty that non-Indigenous Australians have in reconciling colonial legacies. The adverse reaction to events such as the Mabo decision, for instance, demonstrate what Curthoys describes as settler Australians’ ‘fear of being cast out, exiled, expelled, made homeless again, after two centuries of securing a new home far away from home’. Complementing this is the myth that ownership of land by settler Australians was achieved through suffering and hardship.[1]

Drawing upon Nietzsche’s definition of ressentiment (‘triumph of the weak as weak’), Curthoys points to how this negotiation of identity is driven by a declining sense of agency in a world increasingly shaped by unwieldy global forces. In the modern world the integrity of non-Indigenous subjectivity and belonging thus appears more precarious than ever.

How far, we might ask, does the fragility of this myth of white victimhood go in explaining events such as the retirement of Adam Goodes at the end of the 2015 Australian Football League season?

The former Australian of the Year’s recent decision to delete his twitter account, a week after he was depicted as Harambe the gorilla on the ‘AFL memes’ Facebook page, harks back to the circumstances under which he bowed out of professional football.[2] The continuity of these circumstances with the style of frontier emotions – particularly fear and its contribution to the construction of settler victimhood – provides a pressing reminder of the difficulty many Australians have in negotiating the politics of race.

There were always colonial agents, including a number of governors, who advocated the importance of considering the rights of Aboriginal people, especially given how easily they could be disregarded in the juggernaut-like progress of settler colonialism. However, this sentiment was often caught up in what Deirdre Coleman has referred to as a form of chivalric discourse that allowed colonial elites to obscure their own involvement in this process by blaming the innate depravity of their convict subalterns. ‘The velvet glove which makes the iron fist of colonization and dispossession in New Holland more palatable’, is her provocative analogy for this subterfuge.[3]

Whatever the purchase of this discourse, it was easily overridden by the eruption of frontier violence. This often entailed settlers mobilising the fear generated by the increasing threat Aboriginal violence posed as a means of gaining the attention of colonial administrators. Colonial newspapers, such as The Sydney Herald, often aided the imaginative thrust of this emotional communion by way of frontier narratives that reified settler victimhood and emphasised Aboriginal savagery. To the extent that this negotiation of settler subjectivity was couched in terms of colonial economic prosperity that relied on the consolidation of settler sovereignty, expressions of fear on many occasions resulted in the sanctioning of violence by colonial officials. The Black Line in Van Diemen’s Land is arguably the most conspicuous example of this emotional dialectic, and clearly demonstrates the link between fear and what Patrick Wolfe has described as the ‘eliminationist logic’ of settler colonialism.[4]

As for extensions of the Australian frontier to the present day, when attending an AFL match between the Sydney Swans and the Hawthorn Hawks in July 2015, I was alarmed by the unerring tendency for a number of people in the crowd to boo every time Adam Goodes touched the ball. This behaviour had been increasing in intensity since the Indigenous Round a few months earlier, during which Goodes had confronted booing Carlton (the opposition) supporters with a war cry, climaxing in what appeared to be the throwing of a spear. [5]

Given Goodes’ high public profile as an advocate of issues facing Indigenous people, I was surprised to overhear an explanation amongst the crowd for the booing based purely on his style of play. Anecdotally at least, there seemed to be an active effort to decouple the crowd’s incessantly poor behaviour from the issue of race.

Rather than condemn Goodes for his war cry, News Ltd columnist Miranda Devine praised him for it, lamenting the absence of an Aboriginal equivalent to the Maori performance of the Haka. At the same time, however, she felt justified in saying that if Goodes acted like a ‘pillock’ he would be treated as such. [6]

It is hard not to read into such analysis that Goodes deserved to be bullied. Not so much for stealing free kicks (the ‘style of play’ mentioned above), but on account of moments where he not only sought to demonstrate pride in his heritage but also take issue with its denigration.

For Devine, and other journalists such as Paul Sheehan, the true genesis of the booing could be traced most clearly to Goodes’ ‘outing’ of a 13-year-old girl who called him an ape during a game against Collingwood in May 2013. The girl was subsequently ejected from the ground.[7] Failing to recognise his many other achievements, Devine absurdly surmised that Goodes was awarded Australian of the Year principally for targeting ‘a powerless little girl’.

It is by way of such rhetoric that ‘The Adam Goodes Fire’ and the history of settler emotions in this country intersects most clearly. We should not discount the trauma that the young girl may have suffered in being so disgraced. And we should not forget the support that Goodes received from the Australian community, particularly the AFL itself. But, the ease with which the emotional suffering of a young white girl was elevated above that of an Indigenous man, and even offered as a justification for his subsequent harassment, raises particularly pointed questions about the white Australian imaginary. Taken as an allegory for Australian history more broadly, this lack of empathy should remind us how easily narratives of white victimhood can obscure the structural racism Indigenous people face, and how it thwarts attempts to recognise and comprehend past injustices.

The circumstances of Goodes’ retirement can be considered in the context of other moments in recent Australian history when the relationship between Indigenous rights and the emotional fragility of white entitlement have been exposed.  In the wake of the 1992 Mabo decision and subsequent Native Title legislation by the Keating government, John Howard sympathised with a gathering of pastoralists in Longreach, saying that he could

understand the fear in the community that people who have no connection at all with your land can come from a distant part of Australia and say, well years and years ago my relatives, or my ancestors, or my friends, or the other members of my tribe had a connection with this property, and therefore I’ve got some right to come onto your property and to exercise my traditional access rights.[8]

As mentioned earlier, the mutability of emotion has deep roots in Australian frontier history. As Aboriginal resistance became more and more concerted across the frontier, time and again settlers mobilised their fear of this threat to their lives and property. By their violent response, colonial administrators only validated the victimhood represented by this expression of alarm. There are clear differences between the very real threats Indigenous people posed historically in terms of the loss of life and property and more recent moments where they have challenged the hegemony of settler colonialism. This underlines the importance of Wolfe’s definition of settler colonialism as ‘a structure rather than an event’, at the heart of which is an ‘eliminationist logic’ driven by economic imperatives.  Implicit within this structure is a clear privileging of settler emotions over any reflection regarding Indigenous rights. The economic ballast provided by pastoralists since the early nineteenth century, and more recently by the mining industry, is easily packaged via political rhetoric with the unsettled emotions evoked by Indigenous resistance to the ongoing dispossession and exploitation of their rights to land.

This structural discrepancy is clearly reflected in the controversy which came to surround Adam Goodes throughout the 2015 AFL season. Like Goodes’ actions which provoked this controversy, NAIDOC week provides the opportunity to become better acquainted with Indigenous cultures and consider the historical injustices Indigenous people have faced, challenges which they are still negotiating today. This necessarily involves an exploration of the troubled emotions of Australia’s colonial past and present. As easily unsettled as non-Indigenous Australians become, the least we can do is contemplate the meaning of an imaginary spear being thrown.

Mick Warren is a PhD candidate in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry (SOPHI) at The University of Sydney. His thesis investigates the role of fear in providing settler communities with an imaginative and rhetorical ballast during periods of heightened frontier unrest between Europeans and Aboriginal people. 

 

[1] Ann Curthoys, ‘Expulsion, Exodus and Exile in White Australian Historical Mythology’, Journal of Australian Studies, 23.61 (1999), p. 17.

[2] Georgia Mantle, What’s Next for Adam Goodes?’, Honisoit, 13 October 2015;  ‘Adam Goodes Deletes Twitter Account’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June 2016; Andrew Webster, ‘Why do Australians Celebrate Muhammed Ali but Continue to Bully Adam Goodes?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 2016.

[3] Deirdre Coleman, Romantic Colonisation and British Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 165.

[4] Patrick Wolfe, ‘Structure and Event: Settler Colonialism, Time, and the Question of Genocide’, in Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History, ed. by A. Dirk Moses (New York: Bergan Books, 2008), p. 104.

[5] Andrea Booth and Natalie Ahmat, ‘That Adam Goodes War Cry Used a Boomerang Not a Spear: Choreographer’, NITV News, 3 August 2015. Goodes had recently learned this performance from a junior Indigenous AFL side, the Flying Boomerangs. As their name suggests, the war cry in fact symbolises the throwing of a boomerang and is meant less in terms of a threat than as an expression of the energy involved in both hunting and sport.

[6] Miranda Devine, ‘Adam Goodes Isn’t Booed for the Colour of His Skin. He is Booed for Acting Like a Pillock’, The Daily Telegraph, 30 July 2015.

[7] Paul Sheehan, ‘The Adam Goodes Fire was Lit by His Conduct, Not His Race’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 2015.

[8] ‘Transcript of the Prime Minister the Hon. John Howard MP Address to Participants at the Longreach Community Meeting to Discuss the Wik 10 Point Plan Longreach, QLD’, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet <https://pmtranscripts.dpmc.gov.au/release/transcript-10361.&gt; Accessed 9 June, 2016.

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