Throughout my childhood, my elder brother often called me “spastic” or “spaz”. It wasn’t the nicest thing to call a brother, but it didn’t affect me. In the 1970s it was a typical term of abuse and fairly harmless — that is, to a recipient without any signs of spasticity or other physical disability.
My brother had the sense not to use the term towards anyone who was disabled (or “handicapped”, as it was called then). I remember going to the Spastic Centre in Allambie Heights to donate money we had raised, and feeling so harrowed by sadness that I burst into tears. It didn’t take such a visit to remind you of what some people had to struggle with, but it didn’t do any harm either. Yet when my brother kept calling me a “spaz”, it was still water off a duck’s back. If he’d used it towards someone who’d suffered from it, I’d have been the first to go after him with my cricket bat.
The point is that vilification of any kind is not just a matter of a word: it’s all to do with context. A few years ago, the radio announcer Steve Price attacked me on air for condemning the cricketer Darren Lehmann’s calling the Sri Lankan team “black c-nts”. According to Price, I was being a hypocrite for not likewise condemning a black sportsman for “vilifying” opponents as “white bastards”. A Sri Lankan player, on a previous tour, had denigrated Australians as “sons of convicts”, and I was accused of double standards.
But words of race aren’t just words. They are loaded with history. As white people in Australia have not been subject to invasion, dispossession, marginalisation and a host of other discriminatory behaviours and policies, it’s as hard for me to take legitimate offence from being called a “white c-nt” as it was to be called a “spaz”. There is no history of abuse, in Australia, carried by the word “white”. When it comes to the word “black”, there are 222 years of it.
(I’m aware that we could start up a whole new line of argument, on gender lines, about the abusive use of slang for the v-gina. As the late Pamela Bone asked, why is there no charge of vilification of women for the use of the word “c-nt”?)
When it comes to the two recent allegations against NRL players, it’s hard to know what to make of them. Timana Tahu allegedly called a 16-year-old boy a “black c-nt”, and Dean Young allegedly called Robbie Farah a “f-cking wog”.
In the Tahu case, there are so many ways in which his alleged words are disgusting — an NRL hero speaking abusively to a 16-year-old, a brave spokesman against such language using the very words he took a stand against — that the league ought to have some way of sanctioning Tahu. But is it racial vilification? Where it’s one black man abusing another, the matter is complicated. Indeed, there’s been a great tradition of dispropriating language from the oppressor and neutralising it, such as black Americans calling each other “nigger”. In their mouths, it is not vilification. In a white mouth, it is. The retrieval of the word is brilliantly empowering, but it all depends on who is uttering it and to whom.
If the allegations against Tahu are correct, he wasn’t using the word in that brotherly sense. But it’s not the same as a white player using it, as Paul Gallen did to Lupini Paea, and for which he was rightly punished. Tahu ought, if the allegation is correct, to be sanctioned for bullying, but not necessarily for racial vilification.
Young’s alleged slur is even trickier. (Bear in mind that in another version, he called Farah a “f-cking dog”.) To call the Lebanese-background Farah a “wog” is not only an ethnic misfire but it harks back to a time when people of Mediterranean, that is Italian and Greek, origin were routinely vilified. Yet they, like the nigger-speaking African Americans, have reclaimed the word with gusto and Nick Giannopoulos turned it into a kind of comedy. It’s hard to see what sense “wog” carries nowadays. Perhaps all it carries is the primitivity of Young’s anger. Farah didn’t take exception, other than, by his own admission, to try to use it to milk a penalty. The NRL, in finding that Young did not have a case to answer, acted with common sense. Young might be stupid, but the content of racial vilification in his alleged words is unclear.
As for a South African swimmer describing an Indian spectator as carrying on like a monkey, that’s a different matter altogether. Both the term of abuse, and the speaker, carry so much history on their backs that it’s more like a gorilla. Roland Schoeman had a fair point in reacting to unruly fans at the Commonwealth Games swimming, but before he spoke he might have given more thought to what country he comes from, what country he’s in, and how their respective histories had brought them here. If anyone was the racial buffoon of the week, it was big Roland. But he escaped with no more censure than the lettuce-leaf flayings of the Indian media.
Back Page Lead is a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.