We have watched the year-long vilification of Aboriginal AFL player Adam Goodes in silence from the classroom. It would be too simple and easy to explain what happened to Adam in terms of ignorance or mob mentality. We know students are already a part of what is going on: there are “booing” jokes in the corridors and playgrounds and we now cringe every time “sook” or “get over it” gets casually tossed at someone.
How does a teacher create a learning moment for students so that they can see the difference between booing unsportsmanlike behaviour and bigotry?
How do we get students to see that Adam Goodes is always an Aboriginal man and a footy player? That when we boo his expressions of Aboriginal culture we are, in effect, telling him, “Keep your Aboriginality off the field, just bring your footy skills”.
How do we get our students to understand the casual and cultural racism that underlies the perspectives that support the Right to Boo? Most of our students understand prejudice and discrimination and strongly believe in Australia’s egalitarian ethos. But how do we get them to see that the AFL, like so many other Australian cultural institutions, has a deeply racist history? Should they be taught about Nicky Winmar and Michael Long, whose determined resistance began the long, slow and painful process of opening the doors and minds of the AFL community?
We could also explore whether racism extends beyond the AFL into other cultural spheres. Should we search for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the news and entertainment media? Or compare the ways Indigenous people are represented on the National Indigenous Television (NITV) and commercial television channels?
We could ask who gets to tell the stories of Indigenous people and how many of these stories feed into negative stereotypes.
What would happen if we read the sanitised and romanticised historical accounts of white settlement in our textbooks side-by-side with the Burnum Burnum Declaration, which tells a different story of invasion, colonisation and genocide?
We could ask our students to think about why Australia is one of only four countries that voted against the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Could we watch The People Speak and ask why the histories of so many other Australians including workers, women, immigrants, and soldiers are left out of our curriculum? Without history, however painful, how can we truly begin to understand what it might feel like to walk with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers?
Should we talk about why talking about race makes us so uncomfortable if we see ourselves as an inclusive multicultural society? Talking about race is not the same as being racist.
We could read and reflect on Adam Goodes’s acceptance speech for the 2014 Australian of the Year award where he says he believes that our “choices and how we interact with one another create our relationships and this in turn creates the environment that we live in”.
Seeing cultural difference does not automatically mean you are discriminating against other cultural groups but insisting on seeing people as separate from their culture and history puts us on that slippery slope where it becomes possible to tell Aboriginal athletes which parts of their culture they can “safely” express in public. So Greg Inglis can do his goanna dance but Adam Goodes cannot dance his war dance, at the AFL Indigenous round, no less.
Should we have conversations about where children learn racist and other discriminatory attitudes and language — and also how easily these dehumanising and exclusionist ways of thinking and acting can be unlearned?
We could explore why there is a large educational achievement gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students, or why so many of our schools prefer to focus on the athletic abilities of Indigenous students to the detriment of their academic skills.
It would probably be easier for a teacher to place racism in the “controversial issues” basket and leave it there. Yet, if elite sportsmen are enduring sustained and public racist and bigoted attacks, then how likely is it that a student or fellow educator is enduring discrimination and prejudice in silence?
We are only teachers but we are teachers committed to the struggle to strengthen the inclusive and democratic foundations of public education. A few or many conversations about racism in the classroom might not make Australia a better place for Adam Goodes overnight but the alternative is not to stay silent.
In the words of Martin Luther King, our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.