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An open letter to everyone who says "it's just a joke, Adam Goodes".

Adam Goodes
Adam Goodes

By ANDREA HO

“It’s been blown out of all proportion. I mean it was meant as a joke. Occasionally you have to have jokes that aren’t quite in good taste, that’s all.”

–        Unnamed person on the streets of Canberra, as heard on 666 ABC Canberra this morning

“I don’t think Eddie’s being racial at all. I think it was, just, like you said, a slip of the tongue and it was a bit of a joke.”

–        Caller to 774 ABC Melbourne last night

An open letter to every person who’s complained about Adam Goodes and others this week for taking offence at the comments said to him because of the colour of his skin:

Dear complainant, thank you for your comments. Have you finished? Thanks. Now I have a few comments of my own, which I trust you’ll listen to in return.

Adam Goodes is right to call racism when he hears it. I’m sure he’s had plenty of practice at spotting it. More than you, clearly.

I’ve had some practice identifying racism. More than forty years of it. Like Adam, I’m born and bred Australian; my skin is brown, and I am subject to racism all the time.

‘Just joking – can’t you take a joke?’ I’m here to tell you: you’re not funny.

Racist jokes are crass. Vulgar. Hurtful. With your joke, you judge me before you even know me. You make me less than equal, less than human. You affect my employment chances, my promotion options. You affect how shopkeepers and security guards treat me. You humiliate me in front of colleagues, friends, family, strangers. You’re willing to get a laugh from people at my expense. Your joke is dangerous.

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I’m not going to pretend this is acceptable any more.

Andrea
Andrea

‘Harden up, it’s just words; get over it.’

I’ve spent my whole life hardening up so you can have a soft time, making easy jokes and engaging in comfortable, casual bigotry. But I’ve got over a great deal this week, including the hurdles of politeness that made me hold my tongue to keep the peace, excused your ignorance so as not to offend you, cried in the toilet rather than stick up for myself. I’ve had so much practice at being hard, I’m now prepared to reciprocate with some hard words of my own.

They are: you’re racist.

I appreciate I might need to explain to you exactly what’s hurtful about your joke. You need empathy to understand another person’s hurt – that’s a good starting place, so let’s try.

Think about someone you hold dear (even if it’s only yourself) and remember the last time you felt hurt on their behalf.

Was that dear person a child bullied at school? Bullying is terrible. Though it happens all the time, it’s never justified, and can destroy a child’s early years, ruin their trust, mar their education.

What did you do? Speak with the school principal? Take it to the school council? Move the child to another school? I trust you did something for them, because bullying’s serious. I hope you didn’t tell the child it was just a joke, and to harden up.

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Maybe someone was cruel to your special person: laughed at their weight, joked about their relationship, ostracised them behind a wall of whispers and giggles or rumours and lies because of some slight or faux pas.

What did you do? Take your special person for a coffee and lend them a friendly ear, or take them into your arms to comfort them? I trust you did something for your special person, because ostracism is serious and can have real physical and mental health effects. I hope you didn’t tell your special person it was just a joke, and to harden up.

I could relate to you right now real incidents of casual racism from my trusty back catalogue of experience* about which, ironically, you’d have to laugh – else you’d cry. But I’m not looking for a personal sympathy vote; you made me harden up, after all.

The point is that any story I’d tell you isn’t special. I have everyday stories. They’re the kind of thing you hear at the pub, on the street, at a party, at the footy, on the radio or TV. No matter where you hear them, these jokes – which aren’t jokes at all – are not funny. You’re not funny.

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Understand, this isn’t just about humour. Your jokes are killing our community. With every joke you remind your mates that this person, me, is different, that I’m not like you. Every joke reinforces a wall between you and your mates, and me. You prevent me from integrating, becoming one of your circle. You exclude. Never mind that I was born and raised here and am as true blue as you, that Adam Goodes is the footballer you wish you were, and a man with a generous spirit. While you joke, you never let us forget the colour of our skin, and you never let us join you.

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You don’t want to have to tip toe around the subject? Well don’t – that’s fine by me. If you can avoid offending your large circle of friends and family each day, I’m sure you can manage it for me too. Just apply the same method: before you open your mouth, for a moment, put yourself in my shoes. If offence seems likely, find something else to say, or keep your mouth shut.

There’s a simple word for this act: courtesy. It builds communities and makes friends.
When you make a ‘joke’ at my expense, you make me a part of the situation – so I, and Adam Goodes, and anyone else who is the butt of your ‘joke’, have the right to tell you it’s not funny, and ask you to stop. You have the obligation to listen. After all, it’s you who brought us into this. Harden up.

* Oh, okay. Just two stories then. It’s helpful if you know that one of my parents is Chinese, the other is Dutch, and happily I wear this heritage on my face. The former draws a great deal of unsolicited comment.

It was the mid 90s and Melbourne was awash with sad stories about gambling addicts attracted by the new casino. About this time my then-boyfriend’s cousin was married, the reception held at an upmarket spot in inner city Melbourne. Boyfriend took me to meet the father of the bride, his uncle: a GP from a large country town, pillar of the community, all round nice bloke, sitting at the head table with a bunch of other family, all unfamiliar. Upon introduction, father of the bride simply looked at me, then turned back to my boyfriend and said to him (as if I was deaf, or maybe just dumb), “Where did you find her, the Casino car park?” Table erupted in laughter. Even now, writing this, I feel physically ill.

Or the backyard barbecue where my housemate introduced his old school friend to me. School friend said, “Glad I didn’t bring my dog, you’d have chucked it on the barbie”. Laughter from assembled people. Genuinely lost for words, I goggled at him, so he continued, “You lot eat dogs, don’t you!” More laughter; I felt sick; some other guests looked sick, and didn’t speak to me for the rest of the afternoon. I’d have liked to have left that barbecue, except it was at my home.

Chinky Chiney rice eyes, catch a Chinaman by the toe, encircled by laughing mouths, hating faces, can’tchatakeajoke? Echoes from the playground resonate down the decades.

…still laughing? I wasn’t then, and I’m not now.

Andrea has been working in radio for over 20 years. Since joining the ABC over 10 years ago she’s held jobs in three different states and worked in five, and has worked through fires, floods and cyclones. Andrea relocated to Canberra in 2006, and when she’s not bringing you the occasional radio special, she runs ABC Local Radio in our country’s bush capital.

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