Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Deconstructing Sydney

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”)

Make your pitch on this post...

Labels: , , , ,

19 Pitched:

  1. Viswanathan said...

    A very carefully constructed deconstruction. :)

    Just to put the record straight:
    "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."

    It is wrong, Sachin has repeatedly denied Harbhajan making such slur.

  2. Anonymous said...

    The funniest thing or saddest thing in this whole saga is watching a billion people having trouble digesting that one of their own was racist.

    Deep down you know he was. Step up clear your conscience and let him take his punishment. And then perhaps we can get to Perth and watch some cricket.

    A classic example of your inability to digest this ..."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."

    After all the publicity over the monkey chants at Symonds in India with the ODIs, you can't be serious that Harbi didn't know what he was saying. The possibility on that one is zero.

  3. Viswanathan said...

    " After all the publicity over the monkey chants at Symonds in India with the ODIs, you can't be serious that Harbi didn't know what he was saying. The possibility on that one is zero."

    I am with you 100 percent on this.

  4. obaid said...
      This comment has been removed by the author.
  5. obaid said...

    Ottayan, thanks for putting the record straight... I couldnt find anything to this effect... now I have

    Hanuman, you raise an interesting point. Its true that India is having a tough time accepting that they can be racist, since they have usually been at the receiving end of racism.

    I know that Pakistanis can be guilty of racism, though we havent been accused much of it either. As a kid I remember one of the West Indian fast bowlers hitting Iqbal Qasim on the head with a bouncer, cuttinh his head or chin open. Not long after that one of the most popular comedy shows on Pakistan Television came up with a spoof song titled "kallu Diwanai" which translated means "mad blacks"

    Sad but true

  6. Jrod said...

    The Jason Akermanis you mentioned is a complete fu(c)kwit.

    And people weren't happy here when he did it, and the aboriginals in question were from queensland.

    Roy is also a black man from queensland, i bet you he heard monkey alot when he was growing up.

  7. Anonymous said...

    Obaid, my sincere apologies, I had assumed (definitely made an ass of me) that you were Indian.

    Yeah humans are humans regardless of colour or creed and all nations have racists or people with predjudice - it is a human affliction imho.

    Education, tolerance and respect are our weapons against it.

    Once again my apologies.

  8. obaid said...

    No problem Hanuman... this is a good discussion. I think we all agree that there should not be any racism in sports or any other area which is the most important thing

  9. Q said...

    At first i didn't understand how calling anyone a monkey could be a racist slur but with this post Obaid, I think i have a better understanding.

    Border and Waugh have come out with similar pieces saying that it was more due to a cultural divide as to why Indians may have said something totally innocent with the Aussies taking it to mean something racist. Maybe a better cultural understanding is required as the 2 former captains state.

    But then the bigger issue here is who is right and who is not? If there is no audio or video evidence then obviously mike proctor has taken the Aussies word over the Indians which to me is more racist than calling anyone a monkey. How did Proctor arrive to his conclusion? He has basically concluded that Hayden and Clarke are honest while Sachin is a liar.

    Proctor has a history of being against the Indians. H banned 6 of them for over appealing or tampering and a lot of other things. That led to the 'unofficial' test in SA about 4 years ago.

    Bucknor is a bigger problem. He has always been against India since Ganguly gave him a zero in one of his match reports. Buckno has publically stated that he will never go to India to officiate. He has given numeruous dubious decisions against them with the most famous one being against Sachin when he gave him LBW aftre he was struck on the helmet!

    Either way I think the Indians were right in what they did. I feel for them. Ponting has dug a deep hole for himself.

  10. Soulberry said...

    Obaid, this article is a clear look from the boundary.

    I'll have to agree with just the one point Ottayan makes and I'll add to that.

    I presume you are familiar with Punjabi...now this isn't a defence of Harbhajan or whether he said monkey or not...I'm not privy to the conversation which went on there...but just wondering.

    Harbhajan is rather used to use a particular Punjabi phrase or form of expression in such situations comprising of three words which begin with T M and K. Phoenetically, this phrase has many similarities to monkey when it is said the way it is said on the streets of Punjab and Delhi.

    After all Symo was butting into a banter Harbhajan had with Lee and I'm sure you are familiar that some guys from Punjab use this phrase to tick off the one butting in uninvited. Symo could have made an innocent error of misunderstanding here.

    Racism shou;d be punished and not encouraged.

    Fine article Obaid.

  11. Q said...

    Hahahaha amazing SB! I would have never linked TMK to Monkey but i just said it in my head and totally understand how Symonds or anyone could have taken that and heard it as 'monkey'...

    Had me in splits there..

  12. Anonymous said...

    was just wondering do we ever heard of "racism" or its implication growing up in sub-continent? the best that i could remember was mandella's SAF and the aparthied that goes on there - and that we were told in school that this was not right - yet we had west indian tour termed as "kali andhi" and songs like "kallu diwane" etc blaring out of the media.
    the skin color was never an issue for we never discriminated on it (at least negatively, since "gora sahab" was always considered a tad bit superior than the local folks).
    point being unfortunately remarking against somebody's colour has been deemed "okay" in subcontinent ... the intent is usually not to discriminate against him/her - rather to distance him/her from the "gora"-benchmark.
    and how many of the common folks can truly appreciate what black people had to go through in the western world. i dont think many can. and if they can't - blaming them for racism is not really ideal. they need education - not punishment.
    there was this commentator who said on BBC here that the message is loud and clear "do no mess with indians" ... relating to bucknor. i think making him the scapegoat to save the series is pathetic. the umpiring was not an issue that halted the series - though it did act as a catalyst. incompetent he may be - but to actually set a precedence where anyone can demand the removal of an official and get it is dangerous. i remember pak making numerous appeals to not let hair officiate their messages prior to lords last year - but that was never heard. and that was the right thing to do. you get to deal with the cards dealt to you ... that's the way the game should be played.
    though aussies image has tarnished - all their good-will that was created during 2005 ashes has gone down the drain. i was surprised to see clarke standing his ground when he was caught in the slips - what desparate act.

  13. Anonymous said...

    Really interesting post Obaid. It made me think of a few rather random things. First, I've always thought of monkey as being racist. I don't understand Punjabi but I take Soulberry's point about there potentially being a linguistic misunderstanding (and I wish I got the joke!). I do also see that in some parts of India monkey may not be seen as a racist term, but if Harbhajan actually said monkey I don't accept for a minute that he didn't know that it would be just about the most inflammatory thing he could have said, following the events in Wankhede.

    Secondly, as our understanding of racism is guided by the context in which we have learned about it, I find anonymous's comments interesting. I am asian, born and brought up in the UK, so I can't speak for the subcontinental experience, but one thing I have noticed amongst my relatives is what I would call "shadeism", which I find as difficult to deal with as racism. For example relatives will describe someone who sounds wonderful in every way but will then qualify it with "but she's so DARK". Fairness is seen as more beautiful. Is this also a form of racism?

  14. obaid said...

    Hey Miriam, Soulberry and others... I just stumbled upon the comments here. Soulberry toy have been proved right by the transcripts... what genius, yes I do know all the bad Punjabi words, little else :)

    Miriam, you also raise an interesting point... I have studied "shadeism" in the same course I mentioned in this post. Our Prof used the very relevant example of a product called "Fair and Lovely". Its a skin whitener which is very popular in India and Pakistan. there is in fact an ad in India which shows a girl applying for a cricket commentators position. She gets rejected, her complexion is "dark". She uses fair and lovely, her skin color lightens a few shades and then she gets the job. So being a few shades less dark increases the chances of success in life... what a horrible message - and it is part of our social fabric! Im not sure if it is blatant racism, but it is discrimination

  15. Anonymous said...


    Thanks Obaid! I'm afraid you've got me going with this cricket commentator example - first of all I had no words, and then I had LOADS of words, none of them printable. I'll preface the words I finally chose with this: generally I think most men (and, obviously, all writers/readers of cricket blogs) are great. However, I'm not even the most feminist person I know, and my hackles are RIGHT up. It's not as if she's just being judged on her appearance. She's being judged on her appearance in relation for her competence for a job. And it doesn't even end there - she's applying for a cricket commentator position, a woman in a man's world, which is presumably some attempt by the manufacturer to show how progressive their product is because it's not just to help women get husbands, oh no!, because that would be retrograde, people! But the message they're in fact sending is this: "Woman! You may think you're doing well, what with you applying for a job in a man's industry you clever thing, but don't think you'll get in that easily. It'll still all depend on how you look and you'll still have to conform to a preconceived idea of beauty". Please tell me this is an old advert? Or have I missed the point and it's meant to be ironic in some way? Either way, I now need to go away and read some Virginia/Naomi Woolf or something to clear my head.

  16. Obaid said...

    Hehe, how about some Spivak? She has some interesting thoughts on women and India. Woolf is too boring and dry :(

    Good that you let out steam... you can search for fair and lovely and you tube, yes, some of these ads still run. It is also common for ppl to go look for "fair" girls for their "handsome and successful" boys in Pakistan... so shadeism as you call it is very much ingrained in our society

  17. Obaid said...

    Miriam read Rahul Battacharya's latest blog here:


    even he is saying exactly what we have been talking about

  18. Obaid said...

    sorry, thats Soumya Battacharya

  19. Anonymous said...

    Thanks Obaid I hadn't seen that - it's very interesting.

    It's not just India - when my sister was on holiday in Hong Kong she found that most beauty brands, including the best-known ones, had some kind of skin lightening range. I don't think it's necessarily just an Asian thing either - I read an article recently where the writer argued that in the US it's relatively unusual to see a high profile black man with a woman with skin darker than his. The Obamas are exeptions.

Post a Comment