NBA star Ben Simmons attends a Melbourne Demons AFL game.
NBA star Ben Simmons attends a Melbourne Demons AFL game. (Image: AAP/Daniel Pockett)

How much more is there to be written? Another incident of alleged racial profiling. Another person of colour speaking up. Another round of vilification for their trouble. And still, despite all the talk about institutional racism and the structures of oppression, we treat each case as if it is somehow unique, occurring in the proverbial vacuum.

You can’t compare the treatment of Adam Goodes to that of black athletes from the past, we were smugly scolded; the fans weren’t booing Goodes because he is Aboriginal, but because he was a bad sportsman. It took years, untold damage and two documentaries for the country to finally come around to the reality of what Goodes was subjected to.

Clearly, we’ve learned little as a nation because now we are told it’s silly to compare the treatment of NBA star Ben Simmons to Goodes. 

For the past two weeks, after daring to allege he was racially profiled at a nightclub, Simmons has been accused of not signing enough fan autographs, vilified for daring to host a basketball camp charging $200 a head, and mocked for turning up to too many AFL matches (?!). It isn’t racism, we’re told; it’s just tall poppy syndrome — a backlash against an Australian who prioritises American basketball over representing Australia (I can’t imagine why!). 

We treat racism as a personality trait, a failing of the individual. We call it hatred, ignorance, fear. But there is another way to analyse it: through the lens of emotional and mental abuse. 

As with racism, domestic “violence” is framed as overwhelmingly physical. We seek confirmation of its existence from incidents that leave physical scars and eventually a dead body behind. But domestic abuse experts have sought to reframe it from a rhetoric of “violence” to one of “abuse” to account for how so much of it is virtually undetectable to outside observers. 

Emotional abusers surreptitiously overwhelm their victims with techniques such as manipulation, isolation and gaslighting. These target the self-esteem and distort the perception of reality of the victim, eliminating the need for threats of physical violence. It happens so gradually, they may not see it happening until it entirely consumes their life.

This is what it feels like to grow up as a non-white person in a white-dominated country. From a young age we are taught to reject anything about ourselves that differs from the white majority. Our looks, our language, our culture. Even our names. Sometimes we are rewarded with the appearance of acceptance. All can seem well, so long as we tacitly accept an inferior position of unwavering gratitude. Should we assert ourselves even slightly, this illusion of acceptance is quickly demolished and it is time for us to “go back to where we came from” or in Simmons’ case to go back to America and never return. 

What makes emotional abuse so hard to identify let alone counter is that it’s not always negative. Abusers can show a “good side” where they appear to love and reward their target. But this is often quickly and viscously withdrawn to punish and remind the target of the power dynamic in place.

Likewise, black and brown people can be rewarded in this system and some may even feel welcomed. Athletes, in particular, can have lucrative and satisfying careers. But it’s a conditional welcoming that can be and is easily revoked. “Basically, if I score, I’m French. And if I don’t score or there are problems, I’m Arab,” said former football striker Karim Benzema in 2011. 

Most laughable about the Ben Simmons saga, in which he claimed he was racially profiled by the door staff at a Crown Casino nightclub, is that anyone can deny this very thing happens. In my early ’20s, my best friend and I were on the right side of the velvet rope in a hugely popular nightclub in Taylor Square. While the doorman — who like me was Middle Eastern — chatted up my tall, blonde, blue-eyed bestie, I watched with both dread and fascination who made it in and who didn’t. Eventually, I challenged him to tell me if he would have let me in had I turned up on my own. He didn’t hesitate: “Sorry but no. I couldn’t.” 

For years, I never told a soul about this incident because I bought the lie I was sold: that I wasn’t good looking enough. But getting into nightclubs has never been about having good looks but the right looks. It is one of the arenas in which the hegemony that is whiteness plays out repeatedly, lest we forget what is acceptable and what isn’t.

We are meant to take these indignities in our stride. The invisible contract we never knew we’d signed assigns humiliations like this as part of the price we pay for being permitted to exist. This is emotional abuse. To be expected to tacitly agree to being diminished and degraded again and again is coercive control on a mass scale. And, like so many trapped in the cycle of domestic abuse, for the most part we do play along because we know if we dare to challenge it, as Simmons did, we are only going to be punished more.

If a star of his calibre can be treated this way, what can the rest of us ever hope to gain from speaking out? 

Peter Fray

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