On The Question Of Race

When I hear the word ‘race’ I think of eugenicists and skull-measurers; I think of nineteenth century exhibitions at The Royal Organisation for the Conquest of Everything in London; I think of posses of white settlers seeking brutal retribution for stock loss on the frontier; I think of Indigenous peoples (wherever they are in the world) bound together with the dead weight of iron chains. I think of the might of imperial Europe; I think of the apartheid systems imposed in colonial countries like South Africa and Australia.

Two significant sporting events have been on this week. Arguably the most significant sporting festival on a global scale is on in South Africa: the FIFA World Cup. For soccer is the game of the people. And the second match of the State of Origin series from Queensland.

The World Cup brings together teams, and their supporters, to celebrate the beautiful game and the internationalism of the moment. However, it will not be without its moments of chauvinist national aggression, nor its racially motivated abuse and even violence.

At the moment, if you were on the moon looking back at the world you’d see South Africa throbbing with the bounce of the African soul. The dance of Desmond Tutu in the stands during the opening match will be an abiding memory from this World Cup. So many of the images coming out of South Africa are joyful in the truest sense. Soccer is the game of black South Africa; the game of the streets; the game of the poor and the oppressed. It has been played wherever and however it can be played. It is now the sport of the new South African nation.

For years rugby and cricket were the games of the settlers. They served to remind citizens (I use the term loosely in apartheid South Africa) of the place of people in the community. They were the exclusive games of white South Africa. The world watched from outside, and at times expressed outrage.

What the new South Africa shows, and their hosting of the World Cup symbolizes, is that cultures can change. Not just structural and legal change, but heart-change. You can see it in the election of Barack Obama as well. This is a new world.

Andrew Johns’ comments about Indigenous Australians (and others) are of the old world. He is not alone. When sections of the media wage crafted campaigns to restore the heroic status of their (pure) Australian legend, they are also of the old world.

Cultures can change. Timana Tahu has the courage to show us that, in the way that Nicky Winmar and Michael Long showed us that, when they said they’d had enough, two decades ago in AFL footy.

When champion centre Steve Renouf and I sat together to write The Pearl, I learnt that the most insidious part of the racism of his home town was that he had internalized it. When, in his youth, a clear injustice was perpetrated against him (or his family), he accepted it. “That’s just the way it was,” he would say.

Well it’s not the way it has to be.

Timana Tahu, I admire you.

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Great work Harmsy,

    it’s really unnerving to hear this sort of stuff happening. We should be leading the way instead of retreating into a backwater mentality. Are some people suffering from PC fatigue maybe?

  2. Racist comments from persons, no matter how well credentialled, are a sign of very low intelligence.

  3. Ian Syson says

    Guys, just because footy has a management that is able to spruik political correctness, there is no reason to assume that the game at large would be particularly free from the -isms.

    Whether it’s Eddie describing a Collingwood player as a “Brighton Grammar poofter” at a recent function or Carlton supporters calling a Knacker I sat next to at the footy a “fucking faggot” the general phobias and foibles of society will find themselves reflected in the people who support and represent the game.

    Racism is so ingrained in our society that it will take more than Vlad developing and implementing policies. It will take more of the Winmar and Long type of actions.

    A friend of mine a few years ago said to me after I was speaking positively about Aboriginal players: “Black players are good but they’ll never win you a Grand Final.” Even I could respond . . . “ermmm Michael Long, Andrew McLeod” and I can’t remember his response. The point is that even when the empirical evidence was there long held prejudices overtook his thinking.

    [tongue somewhat in cheek] I just hope people like Dipper and the other bloke keep it up because maybe that might send a few talented blackfellas off to soccer (which the game needs desperately). Before you scoff there’s actually a precendent for this in Darwin. The local footy comp imposed a colour bar in the early 20s, so the Aboriginal players went to soccer for two seasons where they played against Chinese and white teams.

  4. Dave Nadel says

    To be fair to the AFL management Ian, I think that their policies are a little more than political correctness. They really have put a lot of work into changing attitudes of players and officials and into supporting indigenous and other minority players. Demetriou, because he really is anti-racist, some of the others because they know the game needs its indigenous players.

    I teach one current and one recently delisted AFL player and both mentioned AFL player classes on racial attitudes when sport and race came up in tutorials.

    Obviously, older ex-players, media figures and the like reflect attitudes from when racist attitudes were common and even national policy. And actually, Mal Brown has always been a goose with some pretty obnoxious attitudes on all sorts of questions of which race is only one.

  5. Ian, some interesting, but disturbing, observations.

    I think I cover all the types of people you mentioned in my first comment.

    Xenophobia is alive and well. God bless Australia.

    I put the following down some time ago. It is still relevant (albeit long)


    Thank God I am Australian
    where we are all born free
    except for those, indisposed
    with a little poverty

    thank God I am Australian
    for we all sleep in peace
    unless you’ve joined the multitudes
    caught out on the streets

    thank God I am Australian
    and I can get a job
    I don’t sit round at home all day
    a fat dole bludging slob

    thank God I am Australian
    singing in the choir
    safely cradled in the arms
    of the local parish Friar

    thank God I am Australian
    our leader saves the world
    jetting here, advising there
    his deeds are so heart felt

    thank God I am Australian
    where I make business deals
    with politicians that I know
    wheels within the wheels

    thank God I am Australian
    I walk neath old growth trees
    before they’re all cut down for chips
    and shipped off over seas

    thank God I am Australian
    where I can speak the truth
    no need for whistle blowing legislation
    to batten down the roof

    thank God I am Australian
    we’re number one in sport
    but if you try to take our crown
    we’ll belt you off the court

    thank God I am Australian
    an Aussie mate, true blue
    but careful don’t pee on my pitch
    if you know what’s good for you

    thank God I am Australian
    blue eyes and blond hair
    so if you don’t quite fit the mould
    you’d best stay over there

    thank God I am Australian
    head buried in the sand
    don’t go talking land rights
    or the shit will hit the fan

    thank God I am Australian
    I still have so much fun
    although they tried they didn’t find out
    where I hid my guns

    thank God I am Australian
    no finer have you seen
    and here’s me with my pin-up girl
    cute red head, named Pauline

    thank God I am Australian
    a fair dinkum bloke, no fear
    what’s that you say, you’re bloody gay
    piss off out of here

    thank God I am Australian
    my dad won the war
    he comes home drunk and belts my mum
    then falls down on the floor

    thank God I am Australian
    where men should never cry
    and not expose those lurking fears
    or ever question why

    thank God I am Australian
    big and tough, and cold
    while bleating with the other sheep
    doing what I’m told

    thank God I am Australian
    cheated in my youth
    accepting lies with frightened eyes
    hiding from the truth.

  6. Brave call by Tahu – it could be the NRL’s Nicky Winmar moment. More power to him.

    Phantom – depressing view of the world. A few good things go on here don’t they?

  7. Sorry to scare you Dips.

    Yes there is heaps of good stuff going on, much more than bad.

    I must have been having a bad (no) hair day and was sick of all the hypocracy that was getting in my space.

    I was born with a little wired system that detects BS and don’t always accept it. Some do. All the issues are still here today.

    One of the really good things is:

    From the backline

    Hunt Scarlett Enright

    etc etc etc.


  8. Phantom – and in a year or two the half forward line could read:

    Motlop, Brown, Johnson

    I hear you about the BS – loads of it about. I’m reading Orwell’s 1984 again at the moment, thus I’m rather prickly myself.

    The Ministry of Hate, The Ministry of Truth, the Thought police – sounds like a Canberra press conference in 2010.

  9. johnharms says

    You ought to live here – there’s a book in this.

  10. Ian Syson says

    Dips, I can’t remember: was 1984 written before or after Orwell decided to start offering up snippets of information about his peers to the British surveillance agencies?

  11. Ian – Didn’t know he did!! Got a bit carried away I suppose.

    Then again the bloke who played Superman in the TV series also thought he could fly. Poor bastard.

  12. Ian Syson says

    It’s fascinating because even it could be argued he was doing the ‘right’ thing (perhaps!) it undermines the implicit and justified indignation of 1984. Orwell never struck me as someone with relativist ethics but here you go: http://www.netcharles.com/orwell/articles/col-informer.htm

  13. Ian – I think Josef Stalin was the master of relativist ethics.

  14. Dips,

    I just read (for the first time) Ian Flemming’s first one; Casino Royale (1955) on planes between Adelaide and Sydney and then Sydney and L’ton with a couple of hours in the Sydney tossers lounge.

    It was no great classic but it is unashamedly, and quite naively politically incorrect (nothing nasty) and has some excellent cocktail mixes; mostly Vodka, and tasty dishes.

    Russian caviar on toast with grated hard boiled egg yoke and white (seperately grated). Could have them on New Year’s day prior to the Burnie Gift.

    See there are some nice things happening in my world.

    ‘Floyd’ Phantom

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