Australia - for whom is young & free? Adam Goodes and Australian racism.
Illustration credit: Tania Bischof

In 2013 AFL player Adam Goodes became the figurehead of the conversation about race and its role in modern Australia. Goodes, a proud Indigenous footballer for the Sydney Swans from 2012 to 2015, was considered one of the greats of the Australian Football League. He is now famed more for the events following a game against Collingwood in May 2013 than his contributions to Australian sport. Adam Goodes is hailed as a civil rights activist, and a leader in the conversation about the role of race in contemporary Australia. In June 2020, a mural of Goodes was presented in Surrey Hills during the first few weeks of the protests against the global police brutality epidemic.

In 1788 the British landed in Botany Bay, now an inner-city suburb of Sydney, and thereafter began the process of settling and colonising what is now Australia. Over the next 250 years, a plethora of injustices was faced by Indigenous Australians, and this article cannot possibly explain them all. As a brief summary, British forces in the early colony were in an almost constant state of war with local indigenous people, the spread of disease from Great Britain killed thousands of Indigenous people, and the enslavement of these people was used across the country, despite what the current Prime Minister tried to indicate.

Most famously in Australian racial injustice was the Stolen Generation, a blatant attempt to ‘wipe out’ the Indigenous race, for their racial inferiority. This included taking white-passing Aboriginal children away from their families, to be raised by orphanages, adopted into white families and raised to work for white people in low skilled jobs, such as labourers, housekeepers, maids and farmhands. Notably, Goodes’ mother was a victim of this policy. By highlighting the racist history of Australia, as well as the continued emotional distress faced by Aboriginal people, Goodes began a humanitarian discourse in Australia’s favourite pastime.

In 2013, a young Australian girl who was supporting Collingwood in a Sydney-Collingwood AFL game, the first game of the indigenous round, called Goodes an ‘ape’. A racist derogatory term with strong history throughout the colonised world, as well as in Australia. Goodes, demanded that the perpetrator be removed from the stadium, and this sparked a conversation on the role of politics, inclusion, and racism in Australia, and in Australian sport.

Much of the conversation centered around Goodes, and whether it was appropriate for him to cause ridicule for a 13-year-old girl.  It should be noted that at the time he was not aware of her age and did denounce ridicule directed at her, saying instead that her actions were a result of the society she lived in and her own ignorance, rather than necessarily cruel intentions. He instead pushed the conversation away from this one representation of the issue, and more towards the issue of race relations in general.

Photo credit: Issy Golding

What followed was a dramatic flare-up of a conversation centered around the question Australia avoids, is racism still an issue in Australia? In 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd presented the Sorry Speech, a formal apology from the federal government for the Stolen Generations, and a move towards reconciliation in Australia.

This, of course, ended racism! However, in 2012, Indigenous players were still tormented for their race. It’s almost as if a performative apology didn’t fix racism.  Following the game, Goodes was suddenly the figurehead for this conversation; is race still an issue? Is making a ‘political’ statement appropriate at a football game? Should a 13-year-old girl be held accountable for her words? Similar conversations have been made mainstream again during the global Black Lives Matter protests and the discourse around it, making it clear that just like the rest of the globe, Australia is consumed with race issues.

Adam Goodes was named New South Wales’ nomination for Australian of the Year in 2014 and won. During his speech Goodes discussed his own experiences of racism and encouraged community action against racism. Despite his new position as a representative of modern Australia, he continued to be tormented for the remainder of his career. The ‘Booing Saga’ in which Goodes was continuously booed during AFL games gradually pushed him away from the sport. His work outside of sport continued  his ongoing public denunciation of racism, through his media interviews, the Racism Stops With Me Campaign and his Australian of the Year speech. However this conversation was diverted away from, and heavily mitigated to a 2 year-long saga of persecution, as he was booed throughout the remainder of his career. This  highlighted the continuous disconnect between Australia’s perceived self-identity as a progressive nation in which everyone gets a go, and the reality of bias and stereotyping in Australian society.

Following a try in a game in May 2015, around 2 years from the ‘ape’ slur, Goodes performed a traditional Indigenous war dance, taught to him by a team of Indigenous teenagers, it ended with Goodes throwing an imaginary spear into the crowd. This escalated the division within the sport. Celebratory performances are a common occurrence in sport, especially in football. However, this one was perceived to be violent, the image of a spear being thrown into the crowd that had been booing Goodes for almost 2 years was perceived as a threat. The booing escalated, and Goodes took a leave of absence from the game. He retired in 2015 and did not partake in the AFL retirement tradition of a lap of honour on Grand Final Day in fear of more racist booing shadowing his moment.

Five years on, in the midst of a global discussion about race and police brutality, Adam Goodes was immortalised on a mural in Surrey Hills, a suburb of Sydney. Goodes continues to be the face of the conversation about race in Australia. The BLM movement has increased the conversation around police brutality, deaths in custody and racial bias in Australian law enforcement. 432 Indigenous adults have died in police custody since 1991, and protests have occurred across Australia in solidarity with the US movement, as well as in support of ending the racial violence inflicted on Indigenous Australians.

The conversation, which began with the torment of a talented indigenous player in 2013, has built into a mainstream conversation about the intentional ignorance of the average Australian to the issues faced by others in our country. Three percent of Australians today identify as Indigenous, however, the incarnation rates for indigenous adults account for 28% of the incarcerated population. This dramatic overrepresentation is due to racial biases in policing, policies and crimes. Australia maintains prominent issues of wealth, health and education inequality, along with an unequal treatment of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples by police authorities. In the last few weeks, vigils, protests and much public conversation have surrounded the issues presented by Goodes over 7 years ago.

Adam Goodes started a dialogue about the root causes of these acts of discrimination, in a way that was not intended to be divisive or to cause unnecessary debate, but he was silenced and pushed out of his position of influence. It is only when issues are highlighted by the anti-black racism in the U.S., that Australia looks back on the words of Adam Goodes. Racism remains pervasive throughout Australia, and we must look within our borders, understand the experiences of Indigenous Australians and make fundamental changes within our society to fix it.