In the 1970s and 1980s, black footballers in England and Scotland were all too frequently subjected to racist abuse. It was not uncommon to see bananas thrown at players.
In mainland Europe, this deplorable act is still happening and in recent years bananas have been thrown at footballers, in obviously racist attacks, in countries such as Spain, Russia, Italy and Turkey. Even the National Hockey League in North America has not been immune to this behaviour.
After a similar incident in Saturday night’s AFL match between Port Adelaide and the Adelaide Crows, where a Port fan threw a banana at Adelaide player Eddie Betts (who is Indigenous), it seems Australia should now be added to this list.
Sport can be a driver for change; it can make a difference in people’s lives and unify communities, particularly around national successes. But it can also create tensions and cause conflict.
Following an earlier incident of racism in the AFL, where Sudanese-born player Majak Daw was abused from over the fence, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said racism:
… reduces another person to the status of being a second-class citizen. And it prevents individuals and communities from reaching their potential.
Around the world, sporting achievements are still “seen” in racialised terms. Success (and failure) is explained by of skin colour. The white skin of an athlete is rarely highlighted (and is largely invisible), whereas the skin colour of a black athlete is often identified as a determining factor of ability.
In Australian sport, “whiteness” is still the norm against which all others are measured, with athletes from different backgrounds classed as “others”. It serves as a site for the emphasis of notions of “difference”, often resulting in offensive and abusive behaviour by fans and other athletes.
What does racism in sport say about society?
This behaviour has often been written off as “banter” and accepted as part of sport. This acceptance is indicative of deeper societal issues.
Australian football has been tied to historical notions of Anglo-Celtic “Australianness” – and there is evidence that fans continue to adhere to these mythical views when deciding who is and is not “Australian”.
The AFL is attempting to widen the appeal of Australian football to non-traditional markets. It has recruited players from diverse ethnic backgrounds to act as multicultural ambassadors. These ambassadors have been drawn from Brazilian, Polynesian, African and Lebanese heritage, while Indigenous players have also been prominently featured in marketing material.
However, in recent years, Daw, Nic Naitanui, Adam Goodes, and Lance Franklin have all been subjected to racist abuse on multiple occasions.
The focus on the heritage of such players may actually be detrimental to their acceptance by traditional AFL fans due to the continued Anglocentric culture of Australia and Australian football. These players may be identified as “others” by Anglo-Celtic fans, and targeted for abuse.
Photographs used by the media and clubs often emphasise the players’ heritage, making them an “acceptable face” of a certain minority community, acting as a role model and potential hero for others, while simultaneously restricting their aspirations to playing sport – given there are few opportunities in coaching and management.
Racism is no longer tolerated in the AFL but racial assumptions of black inferiority continue to be made. As historian Colin Tatz has said, sport:
… has shown Aborigines and Islanders that using their bodies is still the one and only way they can compete on equal terms with an often hostile, certainly indifferent, mainstream society.
Losing sight of what is important
Sport generates extremes of passion, partisanship, and adoration.
Fans commit significant time, effort and money to following their team. They see opposition supporters and players as rivals or enemies. They will use various means to try to intimidate and belittle them, often using terms and behaviour that in other walks of life would be seen as unacceptable.
While banana-throwing is often an isolated act, the booing of Goodes took place on a much larger scale, with whole sections of stadiums joining in.
Through the process of deindividuation it is easy for spectators to lose all sense of “I” when they are part of a group. They join in with behaviour they would normally condemn, perhaps writing it off as part of the experience or believing what they are doing to be somehow “less real” because it happened at a sports match.
Room for hope?
Dani Alves, a Brazilian footballer who had a banana thrown at him in a racist attack in 2014, once claimed that the fight against racism in Spanish football is “a lost cause”. In Russia, Christopher Samba – another footballer to have bananas thrown at him – received a two-match ban for making an “unpleasant gesture” in response to racist abuse he received.
In contrast to these examples of societally accepted racism, there is hope for Australia. Recent incidents of racist abuse have been called out by those around the perpetrator and widely condemned. Last year, former Wallabies captain David Pocock became one of a small minority of players to challenge on-field abuse. His stance received a mixed reaction, with some parts criticising him for breaking a perceived code of silence.
Significantly, while Port Adelaide banned its banana-throwing fan, she was also invited to take part in the club’s Aboriginal cultural awareness programs, run by its Aboriginal players. Betts has supported this move, and educating offenders – and wider Australian society – as to why this behaviour is unacceptable and the impacts it has must be part of the solution.
It is hard to swim against the tide, but it is important that when fans witness abuse, even if it is widespread such as the booing of Goodes, they do more than just not join in. It may not be comfortable or easy to do, but such abuse needs to be challenged in sport and our society.
Players are increasingly taking a stand and not accepting racial (and other) abuse. Fans should follow their examples.
Keith Parry will be online for an Author Q&A between 1 and 2pm on Wednesday, 24 August, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.
While Australians value equality, our multicultural nation contains markers of racial discrimination. Some are so innocuous we may not recognise them.
Experiencing racism is part of the everyday lives of many Australians. What is it like to negotiate daily life in a material world that often excludes you, or selectively seeks to control you?
Let’s try to understand the experience of everyday racism by negotiating the material world of an Aboriginal person in northern Australia. You have come into Katherine, Northern Territory, from a remote community. It might be say, Barunga, 80 kilometres away, or Bulman 300 kilometres away, or Lajamanu, 600 kilometres away.
You shop for food at the Woolworths complex. You use your Basics Card to pay. This is a bit embarrassing as it declares you to be living on managed government money. You understand that this card is a legacy of the NT Intervention, designed to ensure that Aboriginal people spend half their government benefits on food and essentials. You understand that this “income management” signals a lack of faith in your ability to budget your own money.
You purchase some power-cards to pre-pay electricity in your home. You hope you won’t have to share them with friends or family who run out of electricity. You understand that power cards are not the norm in towns or cities of the NT, only in Aboriginal communities.
After shopping, you need to go to the toilet. It is the tourist season and the toilets in the Woolworths complex charge $1 per person. There is a guard at the front to collect the money. Throughout the town, the toilets have “closed”, “staff only” or “patrons only” signs. Often, the public toilets in the main street are out of order.
Meeting family in town
You want to meet some relatives in town. It is difficult to meet at the Woolworths complex due to the “no loitering” signs.
You understand that these signs are not intended for townspeople, who have homes to go to, or tourists, who are staying in hotels or caravan parks. You understand that they are aimed at you, and people like you.
There are other signs that are not aimed at you. Those signs, such as the lead photo for this article, depict variations of “ideal” white Australian families. Such signs exist throughout Australia. Inadvertently, they exclude those who do not fit the proposed ideal.
There is a nice sitting area at the tourist information centre but it is fenced. You would have to be a bit braver than you feel to go in. So you sit on the ground outside the fence, next to the car park. You watch tourists eating their lunch in comfort at the tables inside the fence. You wonder if they wonder why you don’t come in.
Like most Territorians, you enjoy a beer in hot weather. The bottle shop has police officers stationed at it. You have to show your address and explain where you will drink the beer. However, your address is that of a remote Aboriginal community, one that does not allow alcohol consumption. You do not have a town address, and for you to buy beer the police officer has to believe you will not consume it in the town’s public areas.
You’ve convinced the police officer that you will drink your beer at the unofficial “drinking spot”, 25 kilometres from your community.
On the way there, you pass the rest area for tourists, replete with lights, toilets, water tanks, tables. You could stop here, but you wouldn’t feel comfortable – and you would be moved on if a tourist complained to the police. At the Aboriginal drinking spot, there are no such facilities. You are expected to sit in the dirt, drink from the creek and go to the toilet in the bush.
There is no light either. While sitting at the drinking spot, you think about the people who have been killed here by vehicles driving at night. You are aware that there is no mobile phone coverage to call in an emergency.
On your way to the community, you pass road signs with Aboriginal people depicted in a cartoon-like fashion. You are glad the graffiti on the Liquor Act sign, “This means Niggers, too” has been erased. You pass the “prescribed area” sign, which warns against bringing alcohol or “prohibited materials” into the community.
Erected in 2007 as part of the Intervention, the original signs were more explicit: “No Liquor. No Pornography”. Somehow, these signs seemed to imply that everyone in your community wants to get drunk or use pornography. You wonder how people in the cities would feel if they had a sign like that at the entrance to their suburb.
Racism is just one form of discrimination
Archaeology can provide unique insights into how material culture can reflect racism. However, racism is not the only form of discrimination. The Scanlon report on Mapping Social Cohesion in Australia found that experiences of discrimination on the basis of “skin colour, ethnic origin or religion” increased to 20% in 2016. The report does not provide figures for Indigenous Australians, but records an increase in negative sentiment towards Muslim people.
Nevertheless, the report argues that Australia is characterised by strong social cohesion. We may have problems, but it seems that we are a long way from the treatment of Muslim women who want to wear Burkinis on the beaches of France.
A system of discrimination
Racism occurs in everyday life. It happens to everyday people in everyday locations. It can be redressed through everyday practices.
There are reasons behind the differences described in this article. Townspeople have had bad experiences with some community children leaving a mess in public toilets (itself a reflection of the dearth of adequate working bathrooms in Aboriginal communities). Rest areas are under different government jurisdictions. The Basics card helps people to budget (and now it is being rolled out in wider Australia).
But while there are explanations for individual practices, taken together they create a system of control and exclusion. The outcomes include mental health issues for individuals, barriers to economic participation and a weakening of Australia’s social fabric.
Minimum standards of courtesy, safety and equality should be maintained for all Australians. The systematic discrimination of everyday racism diminishes us all.