Whitefella Love Is A Fair-Weather Love


I think if everyone cheers loud enough, he will feel it and he will see it … And you know what, I think everyone feels it.
– Swans supporter at the SGC Swans and Crows game on Saturday.

Who cannot help but be swept up in the groundswell of support for Adam Goodes. It has erupted, a storm of indignation and affront, since he made plain and public the devastating impacts of racism – the hurt, the sapping of strength, its insidious and cumulative undermining of the capacity to step up.

In a graphic display of how racism damages life prospects – from kids’ literacy to broken health – the pack booing has left Goodes literally unfit to compete.

And so his demoralizing has been met with a crescendo of counter cheers. A nationwide expression of respect and encouragement from all quarters. His jersey number emblazoned on young dancers at Garma. Handheld homemade banners festooning the stadiums. It seems one of those rare moments of unity, where our higher voices seem to join together to chorus as one to call out racism and shout it down.

It calls to mind the coming together at Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. Or the harbor bridge walk for Reconciliation when Howard refused to apologise. Or for older Australians, the ’67 referendum.

A few sour protests bleat feebly from the periphery, calling their sulky self-exile victimization by the politically correct. We’ll remember where they stand, as when Mirabella boycotted Rudd’s apology, as when Bolt ‘exposed’ Lowitja O’Donoghue as not really stolen, and now with Jones’ asinine snipe that fans don’t like Goodes, just for the man he is, don’t you know.

They feel like attacks on people we love. It’s clear non-Indigenous Australians have a deep and abiding affection for Indigenous Australians.

But it’s a fair-weather love.

Because it fails to find voice for the hard stuff, the appalling rates of black incarceration and youth suicide, the closure of communities and the family violence, the deaths in custody.

We can match these moments of universal anti-racism rapture with their malignant bookends: Howard’s scuttling of the high court Wik decision and his amendments to the Racial Discrimination act, and most starkly, the NT Intervention. A lot of good feeling ran through the protests against all of these inverse eruptions of gross discrimination.

But not enough.

The fact is Aboriginality has a profoundly ambivalent presence for most Australians. In part it stands in for a shared heritage we lack as a collection of interspersed diasporas. They make us part of the oldest continuing living culture on earth, they settle and soothe the often violent uprooting that brought many of our forebears to their land.

The Jindyworobak poets of the 1930s are one telltale expression of this. Taken from Woiwurrung to mean annex, these Australian writers did just that. They set up a club for whitefella writers that appropriated Aboriginal motifs to forge a distinctly Australian heritage. The telling thing is they did this to withstand, even repel, the influx of ‘alien’, postwar immigration.

The ways Indigenous Australians are celebrated as part of us, but then brushed aside when they want to claim their inclusion as distinctly Aboriginal and not assimilated, this isn’t a dynamic we can corral to Bay 13 with the booers at the MSG and leave there. It’s a part of our race relations.

It’s part of a cycle of remembering and forgetting that Chris Healy alerted us to in his book, aptly titled, ‘Forgetting Aborigines’. By cycling in and out of these cultural contact and no-go zones we move between a media-mediated connection and a peculiar sort of dis/regard. It’s turning away while wanting to keep the sweet-faced children and sporting heroes close by, ready-to-hand when they express something about us we want to believe in – that we’re inclusive, one unified national whole.

Most of all Aboriginal success has the potential to wipe from our minds the lived experience and life circumstances of many Indigenous Australians, such as the uptick in youth suicides since the NT Intervention. And going further back, it disperses from our thinking the violent theft of land and the utter devastation of concomitant disease and impoverishment.

Healy called this dynamic, ‘the intercultural space of Aboriginality as constituted by strange and transient patterns of remembering and forgetting’. But since he wrote his book in 2008, the titlecard causes we rotate through our facebook profiles have started to look like the arbitary word swatches a young Dylan flicked through in his Don’t Look Back clip.

In this hailing of Goodes we’re wanting to express something, something important that we know can bring about change. And so we should. Every cry of infuriation has added to the groundswell.

But we’ve marooned ourselves to some extent in disjointed publics that undermine our capacity to join the dots, both between mobilizing a critical mass and connecting Goodes’ debilitation-by-racism to discriminatory government policy.

Ironically it’s a connection he’s made. Reportedly when he saw John Pilger’s Utopia he despaired it hadn’t rallied an outcry, indeed most Australians will never see it.

Part of what’s going on here has to do with publics. There isn’t one overriding public anymore. There are conjoined and overlapping publics that we sometimes crave to set parameters around and sometimes crave to experience as one all encompassing enclosed sphere of commonality.

I take it as a given that all my fb friends #StandWithAdam and support #GayMarriage, and are outraged about #CeciltheLion but also know about systematic human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and so on. That’s why I’m friends with them. But social media platforms each comprise a self-selected public that can ring a limited sphere of action.

Don’t get me wrong, everyday I see the most effective activism germinate in invited pages, punch through to broadcast media and then radiate through shares. This very piece is a rewrite of a fb midnight missive. We who can’t get to daily meetings give thanks to the God of Stay-at-Home, Mark Zuckerberg.

But sometimes we mistake these atomized publics for the wider reach and the critical mass that brings about change. Many times the expression of support for a hashtagged slogan leaves things unsaid, yet leaves us feeling sated, as though we’ve said enough and been heard by those who matter.

Goodes’ stand and the ‘public’ response to it has been shaped by the desire to imagine ourselves as an inclusive whole, as standing together in an increasingly romanticised and receding space of commonality, an Agora, or stadium, where a common will can be expressed despite all our differences.

We’re expressing a shared longing for all Indigenous Australians to overcome the adversity of racism, to triumph even.

It’s truly uplifting and it’s having tangible impact. But it needs to be more than a display of fine feeling, and carried across to all forms of discrimination.

A critical mass of us wants to believe that cheering them on is enough.

Ask Goodes right now. It isn’t.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.