It’s been 50 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the medal dais at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, holding their fists in the air with black leather gloves on. Heads down and shoes off, they protested in a stadium in front of thousands.
The photo of Smith, who won gold, Carlos who won bronze, is one of the most iconic photographs of the black power movement and their demonstration has been celebrated for bringing the horrific treatment and dehumanisation of African-Americans to the world stage.
Also in the photograph is white Australian athlete, Peter Norman, who won silver. He is also credited for participating in the protest, as he handed Smith and Carlos the black gloves to wear and pinned a Human Rights badge on himself in support of their stand.
Over the last few years there's been a growing conversation for Norman to be recognised for his actions at the 1968 Olympics, and yesterday— 9 October —Athletics Australia and Victorian Government announced there will be a statue erected of Norman in 2019 to pay tribute to his participation in the black rights movement and for his work towards racial equality.
This campaign has positioned Norman as a kind of ‘forgotten whiteman’ alongside the celebrated black protesters. But it's not the fact that he has actually been well-documented in sports history for decades and celebrated internationally that I have a problem with, but rather, the mere the idea that white men in history— especially in Australia —will be forgotten.
This is a false narrative, especially when only white men have been remembered throughout history. White men are remembered through monuments and history books, whether they’re invading countries or disagreeing with racism in 1968; we are always celebrating white men.
I don’t want to discredit Norman for his work and I think he should receive positive recognition, as it’s important for white people to stand up and call out racism and do the heavy lifting. And while I take into account the magnitude of a white man taking a public stand against racial inequality at a time when his home country had barely dismantled the White Australia Policy, I don’t think that one person's actions during the Olympics calls for a day of memorial or statue, when there are hundreds or thousands of black people who have dedicated their lives to racial equity and fighting for sovereignty.
The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was during the black power movement and all-time greats like MalcolmX and Martin Luther King were assassinated for fighting against the genocide of African-Americans. Smith and Carlos made the ultimate sacrifice and the only reason they were celebrated, was because black people were celebrating them. Their strength to stand up on the world stage and call out their government on the treatment of their communities, had their communities proud of them.
Smith and Carlos made the ultimate sacrifice and the only reason they were celebrated, was because black people were celebrating them.
They were not celebrated by white people. Instead, white people love to celebrate the wins of other white people in racial justice movements, without celebrating the black people who are doing the real work every day on the ground. This is why 50 years on, the government has commissioned a statute of Peter Norman, set for unveiling next year, and a community campaign fundraised for a statute of Aboriginal man and football player, Nicky Winmar, that doesn’t even have a home yet.
Norman paid a price for standing against systematic racism and lost his career as an athlete, leaving him with little wealth when he passed away at 64. But it should be noted that Norman lost his career for standing up against racism, he never actually experienced it.
If Norman had been black, entering the public service would’ve been near impossible. But as a white man, he had privilege and structural advantage. Access to education and career development outside of his athletics dream was a feasible option for him.
When Norman returned to Australia after the Games, he was treated somewhat like a black man. He was ostracised by his ‘own country’, not dissimilar to the Aboriginal Diggers when they came returned from war (but their families gone and unable to obtain land). Norman faced adversities in his athletic career, but he later became teacher and worked in the public service. If Norman had been black, entering the public service would’ve been near impossible. But as a white man, he had privilege and structural advantage. Access to education and career development outside of his athletics dream was a feasible option for him.
While Norman stood in solidarity with Smith and Carlos’ brave gesture, what actions were made for the Aboriginal people whose stolen land he lived on? As the US was battling against segregation laws and the effects of slavery, in Australia where Norman lived, the White Australia policy, the Assimilation Policy and the violence that came with it were still alive and many Aboriginal people at the time were unable to attend school, live with their family and were being killed by police on the regular. As an Aboriginal person whose family have lived in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, around Fitzroy, Collingwood and Preston areas for generations, my family have been in the struggle fighting for land rights, sovereignty and part of the black power movement since the 1960s in Norman’s hometown, Melbourne. I grew up hearing the stories of Uncle Bruce McGuinness who was involved in the black power movement and other community members who established Aboriginal organisations like the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. While my Elders respect Norman, there are no stories of his direct involvement in their numerous causes.
Celebrating white heroes like Norman as a statue, when there are so few First Nations’ greats memorialised in comparison, only further colonises the colonial environment of Boon Wurrung Country. It contributes to the ongoing colonial make-up of Australia, where we celebrate white men and further give white people an affirmed sense of place and belonging and sends the message that Aboriginal people are secondary.
I would like to see more Aboriginal activists commemorated. Those who have been the target of colonial violence. Those who have risen above it. Not for one gesture, but for dedicating their lives to change in this country.
Tarneen is a Yigar-Gunditjmara, Bindal, Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung and TSI person living in Narrm. Tarneen is a community organiser and writer, working in the NGO sector. Tarneen is a strong campaigner, organising rallies in Narrm/Melbourne 'Stop the Forced Closures', 'Justice for Elijah' and 'Invasion Day'. Follow Tarneen @tarneen
Note:This article has been edited since its original publishing.