Racism is “prejudice coupled with power” – Ernest Cashmore
“A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”
- the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry 1999: recommendation 12
As the events of the Sydney test unfolded and the now the aftermath boils over, I have been thinking about 3 main themes...Firstly, poor umpiring: I truly believe that Bucknor is well past his prime and he should retire from the game. He should say that he is sorry for making some crucial mistakes and that should be the end of that. Indian supporters will tell you that he has a history of poor decisions against India. Secondly, sportsmanship and the integrity of the players themselves is also a very serious issue that I will address in a separate post. Finally, the most serious and interesting issue is the one of a racist taunt made by Harbhajan which I will address in this post.
Racism is racism, whether it occurs on the street, in an institutionalized form or on the sports field. There are some who argue that a person or persons guilty of racism are only reflective of the larger society they are part of. That may be a sweeping generalization, because you cant judge a whole society or nation by the actions of certain individuals. What is clear, or should be clear, is that racism in any shape or form should be called out, penalized and addressed. In light of the Harbhajan incident, further thought is required before we reach any conclusions
I started off by "deconstructing" what a racist incident exactly is. Without delving into dry literary theory, the best way to describe "deconstruction" is a way of analyzing the meaning given to words by Western writers, texts and readers. Simply put the semantics of language are defined by those more powerful than others. Western, English speaking society has a patriarchal, male dominated history, which is why you see words like "man", "mankind" being used to represent a collection of both sexes.
In the context of racism in the Sydney game, Harbhajan is accused of calling Symonds a "monkey". There is no doubt that this word has racist connotations in the Western world. In fact it is pretty ironic to note that the English used this word for others in a way that is now considered racist.
Until a hundred years ago Irish Catholics were discriminated against by white protestants in the UK and USA. Charles Kingsley a prominent English novelist went to the extreme of calling the Irish Catholics “white chimpanzees”. This is an excerpt from one of his letters to his wife on a visit to Ireland - the overtly racist tone is chilling:
"But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault. I believe there are not only many of them than of old, but they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.
Moving to more recent times, I found an interesting example of the use of the word “monkey” in Australia, that sparked a racist outcry. An Aussie rules footballer for the Brisbane Lions, Jason Akermanis described his radio show’s producers as “monkeys” in 2005. This sparked a large outcry from Aboriginal activists as well as the general public, resulting in the cancellation of the show.
There is no doubt in my mind that monkey can be a racist term – it also has a history of use in a racist context in America, “being used by whites to describe blacks, by US blacks to describe whites or West Indians, and by Americans generally to describe Japanese or Chinese”. Also during the recent tour to India by Australia there were widespread allegations of sections of the crowd subjecting Symond's to “monkey” taunts.But for Indians and even Pakistanis a monkey is just an innocent taunt. Being called a donkey, an owl or a monkey is common place and definitely a step down from the many colorful words that involve family members. I cant speak for Harbhajan, but there is a possibility that coming from where he does, he called Symonds a monkey without understanding the implications. But then you can counter argue by saying none of the other Australian players have come up with similar accusations so why was only Symonds complaining? Also, none of the Indians have denied that Harbhajan used the monkey taunt, the chief argument is that there is no evidence to prove that it was used.
Another way to look at it is that Indians are relatively new to the art of sledging. The Australians are veterans and the chief protagonists of the art of sledging. They know better how to stretch the limits without crossing the boundaries
Being racist and making racist taunts - are they in separable? Can someone not be racist but just be making racist taunts as part of gamesmanship? I dont think so... racist taunts are not justified in any circumstances? But then what is kosher and what is not? Is it ok for Indians to be called "bastards"? That is what Hogg is accused of doing - and if did use it, did he know that it is a very offensive word in the sub-continent.
In the end I leave it to you to make your own judgments. I did find it interesting that during Australia's recent tour of India the captains came to an agreement where the word "monkey" was off limit during sledging. Did India present a similar list of off limit words? Racism is after all "prejudice coupled with power". I am left wondering whether the most powerful team in the world gets to define what is racist and what is not... I hope that this is not the case
Here is a little something for Ricky Ponting to think about:
For when the one great scorer comes
To write against your name,
He writes not how you won or lost
But how you played the game
(Rice, Grantland, “Plumnus Football”)