AFL is a big deal here in Australia, probably the biggest deal in this footy-loving country. I discovered that within weeks of migrating here almost 27 years ago. Footy memorabilia can be found in every mall and you’d be hard pressed to find an empty seat at the MCG when a big game is on. AFL gets more than its due attention here. This past week, that attention sky-rocketed when racial vilification became the centre of footy news.

A seemingly ‘untouchable’ giant in the league, Eddie McGuire (president of the Collingwood Football club) made what has been termed as a ‘gaffe’ when he inadvertently made a comment about Adam Goodes, an indigenous football player in relation to the ‘ape’ taunts that same player had to endure from a 13-year old spectator last week. To his credit, he has owned his gaffe and apologized profusely. He knew within seconds that what he said was offensive and he has put in the miles over the past week to try to correct that mistake. Yet there are many questioning what the fuss is all about, wondering why the indigenous community and other people of colour are making such a big deal about it.

The big deal, people, is that bullying, racism or discrimination is more about feelings than intention. As part of my management training in my corporate role, one of the mandatory courses I had to undertake was the ‘Anti bullying, Anti discrimination’ course. The key message from the course was that how a person is made to feel is what constitutes the offense, rather than the intention of the offender. Eddie McGuire was being flippant and a bit of a smart arse when he made that remark. His intention was not to offend, but offend he did because he was careless. Someone in his position should have known better. No-one is above human error and we spiral down another track of vilification if we can’t forgive mistakes in each other. But while we’re forgiving, we must also be learning and inquiring.

I think Harry O’Brien (another indigenous player) summed up the incident and its consequences aptly when he referred to the casualness people in Australia often exhibit when it comes to racism. Remarks or comments are made and often with the excuse that ‘it was just a harmless joke’, forgetting that something is only harmless if the person on the receiving end finds it harmless, otherwise it’s a taunt or an offense.

It is easy for those who have never as a race or an individual been on the receiving end of racial slurs to wonder ‘what the fuss is all about’, but for those of us who have, believe me it is much more than just a ‘fuss’. I have seen strong, athletic men who have dominated in sporting arenas been brought to their emotional knees by cruel taunts where few physical exercises or challenges could make a dent in their armour. I have seen women of steel who can work 3 jobs whilst raising responsible members of society and look like they walked out of Vogue magazine, lose the fire in the eyes under a racial slur.

We have moved on from the deep South of America in the 1960’s where racism was woven into the fabric of that society and we have come a long way from apartheid in South Africa where segregation was entrenched in the legal constitution, but we’re a long way from empathy, acceptance and understanding if we can’t see that casual racism or discrimination is as dangerous, if not more so, than overt racism.

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