Ketan Joshi

The Australian condition: Brown Poppy Syndrome

Australian

Approx Reading Time-17There’s a pattern that seems to repeat in this country. Whenever a minority proudly stands for Australia, white Australians immediately bite back.

 

 


 

 

In 2013, Adam Goodes, a now-retired Indigenous AFL player was facing off against Collingwood at the Melbourne Cricket Ground when partway through the match, a 13-year-old girl screamed from the stands:

“APE!”

Goodes pointed her out to security, and told media at a press conference afterwards:

“Racism has a face last night and, you know, it was a 13-year-old girl but it’s not her fault. She is 13, she is still so innocent. I don’t put any blame on her. Unfortunately, it is what she hears, the environment she has grown up in that has made her think it is ok to call people names. I can guarantee you right now she would have no idea how it makes anyone feel by calling them an ape.

I am loving the support of my friends and family and people in the social media. It is fantastic. But I think the people, the person that needs the most support right now is the little girl. People need to get around her. She is 13, she is uneducated. If she wants to pick up the phone and call me I will take that call and I’ll have a conversation with that girl about, you know what, you called me a name and this is how it made me feel.’’

The girl wrote a letter in response, after their phone call:

“Dear Adam. It was good to talk to you on the phone. I’m sorry for being racist. I didn’t mean any harm and now I’ll think twice before I speak.”

Her mother was furious.

“Joanne told Fairfax Media that Goodes owes her daughter an apology for the ‘unfair’ treatment she received from MCG security staff and police after calling the player an ‘ape’.”

She wanted Goodes to apologise to the girl who’d called him an ape. The backlash against Goodes for having paused to alert security to the young girl was immense and stretched for many years after the incident.

Andrew Bolt (2015): “It came from that incident. People saw that as a massive over reaction and also unfair to a girl 13, just out of primary school, and even when he knew her age he went ahead the next day with a press conference and called her the face of Australian racism.”

I remember being utterly stunned by this cluster of overreactions, alongside a similar backlash when Adam Goodes performed an Indigenous war dance in celebration of a goal.

adam-goodes

Adam Goodes performing an Indigenous war dance in celebration of a goal – something which drew an angry response from right-wing commentators

Events like those above show us the roiling thundercloud of potential energy looking for an outlet. These are outrages that feel justified. The victim is an aggressor, and the aggressor is the victim. As Sean Kelly wrote:

“By shifting the argument, away from Goodes and towards the 13-year-old, commentators achieve a subtle but powerful effect: suddenly, this is not about protecting Goodes from racism, but about protecting a 13-year-old girl from bullying. Once again, racism has been erased from the picture by a neat rhetorical trick”

This conduit for hatred, paired so perfectly with the righteous outrage from a baying mob, screaming en masse, is a very specific and modern mode of hate in Australia. Leaders of these explosions of outrage, in media and politics, insist race isn’t a factor.

Spend a couple of seconds digging into what the people say, and you’ll find that that’s wrong.

When Adam Goodes was chosen as a brand ambassador for a department store, the response was swift:

A few months later, Adam Goodes guest-starred on Playschool, a children’s TV show in Australia that often features celebrities and sportspeople. The response was also swift:

Last year, Waleed Aly, the host of Channel Ten’s The Project (he’s Muslim) was up for a Gold Logie – with critics scrambling to output a collective scream of outrage at his nomination. The pattern was so similar. A stream of outrage so vastly disproportionate to the complaint, with such a sizeable trove of angry racist abuse feeding the machine.

“The fact that the first time there has been two non-white Gold Logie nominees, is the same time there has been actual, genuine outrage over the awards is not a coincidence.”

Goodes and Aly share some similarities. They’re successful, they’re excellent communicators and they’ve used their success to talk about race, discrimination and social issues. They’ve both also been the path of least resistance for the pent up racist fury of a horde of white Australians.

They grow too tall, and speak too freely. This inspires a unique fury manifesting in a specific way.

This pattern didn’t stop in 2016.

On ANZAC day this year, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a young Australian Muslim mechanical engineer born in Sudan, posted a standard “lest we forget” message, but appended the mention of some modern-day atrocities underneath the remembrance:

The post, before it was deleted.

After some angry comments, Yassmin amended the post and apologised:

apology.jpg

Abdel-Magied, like Goodes and Aly, has been a target before, but her hastily-removed suggestion that modern atrocities be paid attention when remembering old ones was the path of least resistance for another lighting strike of outraged racism, like the response that struck at Goodes and Aly.

Government MPs, the acting Prime Minister and crossbench senators called for her to be fired from her part-time job hosting an ABC show. Pauline Hanson’s Facebook post inspired a flurry of comments calling for her to be “deported” (Abdel-Magied arrived in Australia when she was two):

racecard.jpg

The two Change.org petitions to have her sacked from the ABC featured more outright racism and abuse – I’ve uploaded them here but won’t include them in the post. They’re truly graphic. Some Facebook comments are here – they’re far worse (source).

At the time of writing, the ABC has stood by her – but there are renewed calls for her to be sacked from her role on a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) advisory board, and over the weekend The Australian was attacking her because she used a taxpayer-funded trip to talk about Australia instead of calling out abuse in the country she visited (imagine the headlines if she had spoken out about abuse).

The headlines came thick and fast, paired so predictably with a stream of racist and abusive commentary on social media and the pages of the two petitions (Kyle Sandilands came out in support of her, which is nice).

An article written by Osman Faruqi for Junkee, critical of the backlash, was posted on the Facebook page of the Melbourne Immigration Museum, whom a conservative think tank lashed in the pages of the Herald Sun – for sharing an article about the backlash:

This is hyper-sensitivity, but it’s an order of magnitude more intense than previous instances. It’s insane, but it gets worse.

Muslim MP Anne Aly was attacked on Facebook for failing to lay a wreath at an ANZAC day ceremony – hundreds of comments fell like a thick wave on her Facebook page. Turns out she was simply at another ceremony, laying a wreath there.

A Muslim MP is being attacked because she failed to exist in two different locations in the universe simultaneously. To say that this is an impossibly high standard is something of an understatement.

Anne Aly did nothing wrong, but was pilloried anyway. Abdel-Magied did nothing wrong either – that she deleted and apologised immediately should count for a lot with her critics. It doesn’t. The criterion for the energy and intensity of the outrage here is skin colour – the behaviour only serves as an initial trigger.

As was the case with Goodes and Waleed Aly, the captains of this hideous ship insist this is nothing to do with race, preferring to classify their outrage leadership as “criticism”.

Scott McIntyre, a white ex-SBS reporter, was sacked in 2015 for tweeting some contentious remarks on ANZAC day. This is regularly presented as proof that the backlash against Abdel-Magied isn’t racist.

This isn’t logical; though it’s fair to say being employed by a public broadcaster definitely draws a target on any written speech at any time of day. Abdel-Magied apologised and retracted her comments; McIntyre pointedly refused to take his tweets down. His tweets were also direct criticism of ANZAC day, listing atrocities in detail. He shouldn’t have been fired, but there are key differences between the two.

The other defence of the backlash is the truly weird concept that people who are paid through taxpayer’s money may never speak freely on social media at any point in their lives. When you accept a dollar from a job in government, you sign a mystical contract with every single Australian citizen to never utter a word that might grate on their sensibilities.

There’s some truth to this – the ABC does have a code of conduct for social media.

Weirdly, though, calls for sacking don’t apply to people on the public payroll all the time. In 2016, a collection of New South Wales police officers published racist abuse directed at a politician:

Police personnel at Sydney City Local Area Command, Kings Cross, Bankstown, Cabramatta – and even within senior management – have been implicated in an extraordinary attack on the Greens member for Newtown, Jenny Leong. The MP has been devastated by a string of Facebook posts that mocked her ethnic background and referred to her father as a “swamp monkey”.

The consequence? One officer of the group was “suspended”. One full year later, no charges have been laid, and there’s no word on whether the people publishing racist abuse on Facebook are still serving in the NSW police force.

These people didn’t get four days of rolling coverage or petitions filled with thousands of racially abusive comments. This isn’t just about “taxpayer’s money”, nor is it just about the crime of trying to draw some lessons from the memories brought up on ANZAC day.

 

No platform for immigrants

Some consistencies emerge from these instances:

  • A sizzling, white-hot outrage disproportionate to the original act (Goodes must apologise for pointing out his abuse; Anne Aly should be ashamed because she obeyed the physical laws of the universe);
  • Leaders that insist the movement isn’t racist, whilst a stream of insanely racist abuse flies past, just behind their head (see: a Twitter feed listing real Andrew Bolt blog comments; his colleague thought it was a parody);
  • Signals to the mob from those leaders. A government MP has called for Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s “self-deportation”, Hanson accused the ABC of “tokenism”, a News Corp columnist said “We, as taxpayers, should not be forking out for the salary of someone who she says is ‘first and foremost a Muslim’,” and Sky News aired these comments: “It wasn’t ignorant, she was just being a bitch…Lest We Forget Yassmin, that you are brown, you are Muslim and you are a girl and it’s the only reason you have a job at the ABC”.

This is the right-wing analogue of a left-wing concept: that the purveyors of harmful ideas should be denied a platform through collective action. It’s called “no-platforming”. In Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s case, the “harmful ideas” marked for erasure through social and media pressure are:

  • that we remember modern suffering when commemorating old suffering,
  • that an immigrant can be a confident participant in public debate,
  • that a Muslim woman can wear her culture and identity with pride and,
  • that employees at the ABC think thoughts and says words in support of the culture, religion or identity they hold dear.

(By now, you should be unsurprised that someone who regularly cited “freedom of speech” in policy decisions is advocating for policing thought.)

This is no-platforming, but instead of “don’t let this rape-advocate into our country”, it’s “deport immigrants who don’t know their place”. Shouting down ideas that damage cultural homogeneity, rather than shouting down ideas that cause harm.

This is no-platforming driven by a desperate and powerful desire for racism as a social force – brown poppy syndrome, to lop off anyone committing the crime of publicly challenging racism whilst having dark skin. It’s more than resentment or envy. It’s raw hatred.

As Waleed Aly said on Offsiders (it’s worth watching the full clip):

“…it’s about the fact that Australia is generally a very tolerant society until its minorities demonstrate that they don’t know their place. And at that moment, the minute someone in a minority position acts as though they’re not a mere supplicant, then we lose our minds. And we say, ‘No, no, you’ve got to get back in your box here.’”

The human cost of this tragic habit is profound and immediate, and by definition, it happens to kindest and least-deserving of subjects. The endless stream of violent and abusive comments, after the bat-signal from media outlets shines onto the clouds, is something that harms people, and never leaves them. These scars are forever.

Stan Grant said, of Adam Goodes:

“Regardless of what the motive is, you may not like him as a footballer, you may not like the colour of his skin, that’s your prerogative, but if someone says, ‘that hurts me, you’re upsetting me, you’re humiliating me,’ a civilised people and a civilised society stop.”

Last week was anything but civilised. We have developed a seriously ugly habit over the past few years – smart, beautiful and accomplished young Australians like Adam Goodes, Waleed Aly, Anne Aly and Yassmin Abdel-Magied find themselves targeted by stratospheric levels of exaggerated, lingering and unfair outrage. Media outlets shine the signal and a swarm of social media threats and abuse land at their feet.

The charges against them are vague but held with searing passion. There is nothing they can do to avoid these immensely cruel campaigns.

Can it be stopped? There’s no appetite to admit the brutality and ugliness of these manifestations of racist anxiety. Through the setting of an unattainable standard of behaviour, dark-skinned immigrants and Aboriginal Australians can only avoid the mass-emotional-short-circuit of brown poppy syndrome by assuming a position of eternal mediocrity and total silence.

Silencing dark-skinned Australians isn’t a great outcome; a better way forward might be to ditch the brutality and let Australians do their thing, unimpeded by the outrage their skin has inspired.

 

This article was originally published on ketanjoshi.co, and is reprinted with permission.

 

 

Ketan Joshi

I did a science degree at Sydney University, and since I was a teenager I’ve loved science, technology, philosophy and psychology. I worked in the renewable energy industry for six years, doing operational monitoring, data analysis, community engagement and corporate communications. My passion is communicating complex, technical concepts in highly accessible ways; seeking to entertain and educate, rather than patronise or over-simplify.

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