Years ago I was part of a group staying in an Aboriginal homeland community, Baniyala; a community steeped in its traditional culture and beliefs. The community held a welcome ceremony for us. The men marched in military formation into the township brandishing real spears and wearing body paint. They moved towards us in a menacing way with spears upheld before lowering them. It symbolised us being foreigners on their country and them deciding whether we were friend or foe. On realising we were friends they put down their spears and welcomed us.
I’m familiar with the tradition and didn’t find it threatening. The non-Indigenous people in the group were fascinated and enthralled whilst conceding they felt a little discomfort facing a group of men pointing spears at them.
Displays of military prowess are universal traditions to display national pride, mark events and welcome foreign dignitaries. In sport, war cries are used to celebrate and show strength. For over a century the New Zealand Rugby team have performed the haka before matches - a traditional Māori war dance performed in battle, celebration, welcome and commemoration.
The Flying Boomerangs is an AFL personal development and leadership program for young Indigenous teenagers. The Boomerangs perform a war cry based on traditional ceremony and dance. It concludes with the gesture of brandishing and then lowering a spear; as if to say “We’re’showing you who we are. Don’t mess with us”.
In AFL's 2015 Indigenous Round Adam Goodes performed this war cry after scoring a goal. The Boomerangs had recently taught it to him. He was paying tribute to them and celebrating his goal and his culture. What a moment for those kids to see him perform their war cry to a packed stadium. How shattering for them it triggered a media storm.
Adam’s actions were labelled controversial and threatening; a divisive political statement. Andrew Bolt asked:“is this the truth of ‘reconciliation’ made visible — the division of Australia into ‘races’, each with its ‘warriors’ waving imaginary weapons? What next? Players miming throat-slitting at rival fans?” Alan Jones said crowds don’t like his "spear throwing and the running in and doing a war dance and so on and provoking people".
For two years now Adam’s actions - refusing to ignore a teenager’s racial slur, discussing his own conflicted feelings about Australia Day, celebrating with cultural dance – have struck a raw nerve. He’s made people uncomfortable deep in their gut. And deep in our guts Indigenous Australians feel it’s because other Australians don’t accept us.
This affair has laid bare deep, unconscious beliefs and biases about racial issues within both black and white Australia.
I choose my words deliberately. Unconscious biases are founded in our earliest experiences and everyone has them. They’re linked to our “flight or fight” responses, enabling our brains to make quick judgements. They also make us prejudiced in ways we don’t even realise. There’s a vast body of evidence that unconscious bias influences decisions and actions, even contrary to a person’s conscious viewpoints.
Unconscious bias includes a tendency to empathise with people more like yourself. Miranda Devine believes the teenager who called Adam an ‘ape’ and was removed by security suffered the “central injustice" of that incident, writing: “Whatever harm had been done to Goodes by hearing the word “ape”, it paled in comparison to the unconscionable treatment of the girl...”
That’s a subjective assessment. Her instinct says a teenager being detained by police is more painful than a black footballer being called 'ape'. Unlike her, I’ve experienced both and I disagree.
Changing your unconscious mind first requires being aware it exists; self examination and willingness to uncover prejudices you don’t believe you have. It’s hard. We’d prefer to find rational – unbiased – motives for our attitudes like “I don’t oppose the war cry because it’s cultural but because it’s aggressive. I’d feel the same if he motioned slitting his throat” - or – “I’m not booing because of his comments on Australia’s history. I just don’t like how he plays.”
Secondly you need to expose yourself to broader diversity and experiences, especially ones that create discomfort; like my friends experiencing the spear dance in Baniyala.
To simply label booing as “racist” is a blunt instrument that doesn’t do justice to this situation’s complexity. But to pretend this firestorm is colour blind ignores the charging elephant in the room.
All New Zealanders embrace the haka; it’s part of New Zealand as a nation. By contrast, Adam’s expression of Indigenous culture is seen as confrontational and divisive. This must change. All Australians should be able to embrace our nation’s shared 40,000+ year history that includes the ancient past of our first nations, the British institutions we’ve made our own and the cultural richness from two centuries of immigration.
This furore demonstrates great misunderstanding and distrust still exists between black and white Australia. I’d like to see Australia’s national sporting teams – all players, not just Indigenous - perform a traditional war dance at games. The truth is both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people would find this idea confronting. That, of itself, is something we should all reflect on.
This article was first published on 5 August 2015 in The Courier Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun.
We should all dance to this
5 August 2015
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine