Casually and comfortably racist

"I am not a racist," declared Eddie McGuire, his face glowing in the glare of TV cameras. In a rambling news conference, the football club president and media man said he claimed full responsibility for a racist slur he then blamed on fatigue and being "zoned out".

"I am not a racist," declared Eddie McGuire, his face glowing in the glare of TV cameras. In a rambling news conference, the football club president and media man said he claimed full responsibility for a racist slur he then blamed on fatigue and being "zoned out".

Suggesting on radio that an indigenous footballer should promote a King Kong musical was a mistake, he said. Unintentional. An abnormality. A bad case of foot in mouth, "simple as that". Over 24 waffly minutes, McGuire used the phrase "slip of the tongue" 16 times.

"Some people are racist, some people are abusive, some people are angry, some people make mistakes," McGuire said on Wednesday afternoon. He might as well have added: "Some of my best friends are black."

NSW Deputy Opposition Leader Linda Burney says there are no excuses. "You don't have to scratch the surface too hard in this country to find an awful underbelly of racism," she says. "Anyone who thinks Australia doesn't have an awful underbelly of racism only has to look at 2005 in Cronulla or Pauline Hanson's inaugural speech in Parliament and what that unleashed."

The Australian Human Rights Commission's president and acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, Professor Gillian Triggs, says McGuire's linking Adam Goodes with King Kong shows how casual racism is part of national life.

"Suddenly, we've been reminded that racism is somewhat entrenched in our thinking and each of us has to be careful about how we discuss these questions, " she says.

McGuire was quick to console Goodes after he was called an "ape" by a 13-year-old girl during a match at the MCG. On Wednesday, McGuire then compounded the insult on his breakfast radio show with his King Kong remark.

Collingwood player Harry O'Brien, who has a Congolese father and Brazilian mother, took to social media, saying McGuire's comments reflected common prejudices. "I would argue that many people in this country would not think what Eddie or the 13-year-old girl said last friday is 'bad'," he tweeted.

O'Brien says he experiences racial discrimination every day. "It is casual. Whether it is indirectly or historically, we experience it because it's almost like our racial discrimination has been hidden under larrikinism."

"Everyday racism" - insults, disrespectful treatment or mistrust of people of ethnic backgrounds - is common, says University of Western Sydney professor Kevin Dunn, of the Challenging Racism project.

The project's national surveys since 2001 found that while 86 per cent agreed a "society made up of people from different cultures" was a good thing, four out of 10 Australians had misgivings about racial and cultural minorities. "It is less harmful than being excluded from a promotion or missing out on a job or being racially attacked or threatened," he says. "But we know these everyday forms of racism have morbid effects on victims - it affects their health and their sense of belonging."

Yin Paradies, deputy director of Deakin University's Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, believes contrary to populist opinions, Australians carry racism deep within. Polls show racism to be less evident among the young, the better educated and the wealthy.

"Of course," says Paradies, "middle-class people are better able to disguise their racism. Maybe Eddie McGuire put into words what many keep hidden deep down."

Anti-racism has been constantly evolving in Australia, so little wonder that many are confused. Wounding words were once commonplace: in the 1930s, The Australian Abo Call newspaper was "the voice of the Aborigines"; in 2008 the Queensland government backed away from retaining the name E.S."Nigger" Brown on a rebuilt Toowoomba grandstand: racial vilification in one mouth is street poetry in rap music.

Even the penalties for crossing the line are confusing. Rugby league legend Andrew Johns retains his media posts despite calling Greg Inglis "a black c---" in 2010.

Last month, the ABC suspended 40-year veteran David Morrow after he parodied an indigenous accent on air in a joke about Darwin residents. In contrast, Collingwood stood by its man. The AFL has ordered McGuire to attend tolerance classes and mediation with Goodes.

The 13-year-old who yelled at Goodes reportedly had little idea of the racism inherent in her abuse. "Ape" carries different freights for different peoples.

In the 19th century, the search for the "missing link between humans and apes" became both a scientific quest and entertainment.

Even Charles Darwin stirred the possum in his 1871 work The Descent of Man. Bone collectors scoured the bush. The account of the competition between scientists to obtain the skeleton of William Lanney, the so-called last Tasmanian Aboriginal man, is beyond harrowing. His body was mutilated in a hospital dead house in 1869 and subsequently ripped from its grave.

The macabre bone-hunt happened on the mainland too, reportedly until the 1940s. Many Aborigines alive today grew up with knowledge it was going on.

Linda Burney has had to confront the notion of Aborigines as being subhuman since childhood. "I remember in my first year of high school sitting in a classroom, being the only Aboriginal kid in the class, and being taught Aboriginal people were the closest example of Stone Age man on Earth today; that we had no technology, no culture," she says.

The response this week from some radio talkback listeners who defended McGuire shows such "inherent racism" continues, she says. Former AFL player Sam Newman, who once described a Malaysian man as "not long out of the forest" on television, insisted his friend McGuire's gaffe was "word association, nothing more".

NSW Anti-Discrimination Board president Stepan Kerkyasharian says McGuire's comments and the ensuing storm are signs of Australia's immaturity on race relations. "We have in some ways been isolated from the evils of racism that other parts of the world have seen and experienced," he says. "The downside is we tend to deal with some of these issues casually and then, when we realise it has crossed the line, we tend to panic and go into 'Oh, my God' mode to re-establish that this is not something we support."

Kerkyasharian proposes a simple test for knowing whether a comment or joke about a particular race crosses that line: "If someone made a joke like that about me, ask yourself, 'How would I feel?"'

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