Peter English

Kicking out racism

An embarrassed Cricket Australia has had to ask the government for help punishing spectators yelling racist abuse at visiting sportsmen

Peter English
Peter English

The advice from crowds this season has not always been as helpful as it is for Andrew Symonds © Getty Images
The treatment of racism in Australia is evident in the coverage of Queensland's The Courier-Mail today. The ICC's decision to send Goolam Vahanvati, India's solicitor-general, to investigate the appalling crowd behaviour at Australian grounds, including the state's main stadium in Brisbane, appeared on the sport section's third page. On the front cover John Howard, the prime minister, was telling television stations to watch their Ps and Qs, but mainly their Fs and Cs, when producing reality shows.
Vulgar language and the odd flash of skin during Big Brother is apparently too offensive for the many conservative viewers, but when it comes to colour the country is expert at clamming and covering up. An embarrassed Cricket Australia has had to ask the government, a coalition of the Liberal and National parties who have refused to apologise to the Aboriginals' stolen generation, for help punishing spectators yelling racist abuse at visiting sportsmen.
Stump microphones have been turned down so viewers aren't shocked by the players swearing, but the words in the stands this summer have been much more upsetting. South Africa have complained throughout the tour of racial taunts, which have resulted in a handful of offenders being ejected and the threat of future boycotts, and last week the Sri Lankans were targeted as "black c****" in Adelaide and Sydney. The mainstream theory condemns ex-pat South Africans for bringing in words like "kaffir", as if the only place the pure locals have seen them is in cookbooks next to vine leaves.
"Don't blame Australians for the racist remarks," a reader wrote to Cricinfo's feedback this week. "They were made by South Africans now living in Australia." This popular comment misses the problem that has been pushed underground for decades.
A bay of supporters was decked in patriotic gold shirts at the SCG last summer to watch Australia play Pakistan. Closer inspection of their garb revealed a slogan including the words "Pakis" and "towelheads". The year before Indian supporters were upset to be called "coolies" at Adelaide and in response to the Barmy Army's 2002-03 chants the locals fans responded with "I'd rather be a Paki than a Pom". All were probably expat South Africans.
At the Twenty20 international in Brisbane earlier this month a family visiting from Perth wanted only to watch Ricky Ponting bat. They saw him and were excited, but they also heard a group of men behind them speaking quietly about the "monkeys" in South Africa's team before a fight broke out a few rows further back. The punching man was thrown out but the group of old-world attitudes remained. Before the 2003 World Cup Darren Lehmann was banned for yelling "black c****" in a Gabba dressing room after being run out against Sri Lanka. Lehmann's supporters said he was definitely not a racist, but a "good bloke" who was affected by the heat of the moment.

Darren Lehmann was banned after his explosion in a Brisbane dressing room © Getty Images
Is there a pattern here, or are there just a lot of South Africans in Australia? The attitudes seem so ingrained they go unnoticed by the users or their sympathisers. The rest of the world sees the damage through international coverage of the recent beach riots at Cronulla, the Tampa boat crisis over refugees in 2001, the policies of the popular One Nation party in the 1990s and its cricket grounds.
However, national immaturity prevents Australia from recognising the racism even though terms such as "Lebs", "blacks" and "Abos" appear in many conversations. Yesterday a sports-loving gentleman at a club morning tea wondered what all the fuss was about: "They've been called kaffirs all their life, why does it matter now?"
English football set up a Let's Kick Racism Out of Football group in 1993 and a similar exercise would be valuable in cricket as a tool of education and understanding. Tim Cahill, the Australian midfielder at Everton, holds a prominent position on their website. "Racism is not only unacceptable, it is criminal," Cahill says. At best this summer's offenders are guilty of gross ignorance, at worst they are racist. Cahill's description must become the standard line.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo