Physically I am not very dark, but that has not protected me from racist taunts throughout high school. I've been called a series of awful names by many of my peers and even had a joke made about Aboriginal people in one of my classes by a teacher…Getting called 'ugly' or 'stupid' does not even come close to how much it hurts being called 'ugly' or 'stupid' because you are Aboriginal.
I wrote this in an email to a talkback radio show on the 29 of May 2013. They were taking calls from the public, all of whom thought that Adam Goodes needed to “get over it”.
I was a few months off 18, staring down the barrel of my final months of high school. It was a time when I was spending a lot of time trying to figure some things out.
Things like, the joys of biting straight into an apple after finally getting my braces off; discovering what exactly a ‘cronut’ was; pondering over Miley Cyrus’ decision to start licking hammers and more deeply, why legendary AFL player Adam Goodes was vilified for alerting security to a fan who was calling him an ape from the sideline of a game.
Now that Adam and the famous altercation is back in the headlines, I reread the email I’d sent six years ago. I’ll be honest, seeing those words again took the wind out of me. It's like a really depressing diary entry from my adolescence, bringing back memories from a time that I’d rather forget.
In our house being Aboriginal was the greatest thing you could be. It was something all of us could be proud of, but outside our walls, the very opposite message was being said.
Mere months before the Goodes’ incident, my peers had scrawled graffiti on school property stating ‘Marlee Silva sniffs petrol’. This was not just bullying, this was a wake-up call that I was living in a bubble at home. It was clear that the people around me — who made up the society I lived in — had very different worldviews to mine and my family’s.
You see, in our house being Aboriginal was the greatest thing you could be. It was something all of us could be proud of, but outside our walls, the very opposite message was being said.
The Adam Goodes media storm was the definitive burst of that bubble and a defining moment in my understanding of what it means to be black in Australia today.
My Dad played in the NRL for 14 years, so Goodes wasn’t in the code I followed, but in the same way I know very well who Buddy Franklin and Eddie Betts are now, back then I’d only ever paid attention to AFL when it involved Adam, his teammate Michael O’Loughlin or any other Aboriginal players. So, the night the story broke, as the TV played in the background while my family and I ate dinner, my ears perked up at the mention of Goodsie and racism.
As the story unfolded on screen, we all stopped eating and turned to watch. A lump formed in my throat, looking at him in the news footage. I could see my Dad, picturing him as the skinny-ankled fullback for the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs, once upon a time.
I imagined Dad sitting on the bench or heading in and out of the sheds, being close enough to the passionate footy fans, and wondered what filthy words and slurs had been thrown at his black skin back then? Would he have wanted to make a stand as we’d just watched Adam do? Or would he have chosen to stay silent, in fear of the public backlash as we’d just watched Adam be subjected to?
As we watched that footage that day, what we saw was a successful, proud, black man and a role model by any means, stand up and point out racism on the spot on national television, with instantaneous results.
What we saw in our eyes, was an undeniable triumph.
But at school the next day, none of my peers seemed to feel anything that remotely resembled the conflicting mix of feelings that I was carrying with me.
Instead, it was the opposite. They called him “weak”, said he wasn’t “a man” for becoming “emotional like that” and at the heart of it, couldn’t understand the racial connotations in calling someone an ape.
At this moment, it suddenly felt as if Australia had been lying to me; lying about its acceptance and understanding of who I am. In disregarding Adam’s emotions and his fight, they disregarded mine.
When my friends comforted me after I was labelled a petrol sniffer, did they understand why I was so upset? Could they differentiate between mean words and hate words?
I thought hard about it. When my friends comforted me after I was labelled a petrol sniffer, did they understand why I was so upset? Could they differentiate between mean words and hate words; words that are scribbled about an individual and racist remarks that insults, oppresses and stereotypes whole communities? And importantly, if I had asked them to speak up in support of me or walk with me against racism, would they do it?
In later years, I would find that the majority answer to those questions, was no. It was a tough lesson to learn, but with the help of that safe bubble at home, I turned this story of Adam’s into an inspirational and resilient reference point for myself, which I still lean on today.
Considering the power of his actions then, his continued commitment to speaking out against racism since and his charitable work within our community, Adam Goodes — the booed footballer who became the receipt for the Australian of the Year — is a prime example of making the best out of the worst kind of situation.
His story has now been captured in Ian Darling’s eye-opening documentary ‘The Final Quarter’. Since its release, the AFL has responded with a formal apology for their lack of actions around protecting and supporting Adam at the time.
It is one of the hardest films I’ve ever watched in my life. Not just because of how angry or heartbroken it makes you feel to watch what Adam went through, not just because we’ve seen those same attitudes of that time re-emerge with the recent reaction around Cody Walker and the national anthem, not just because I’m the daughter of an Aboriginal ex-sportsman — but because of how deeply it reflects the Australia I grew up in.
It harked back to the time in my life when I was hurting, felt alone and outcasted. I had to grow confident enough to not just be a proud blackfulla, but one who stood up and spoke out about my culture and our fight for a better Australia.
I got to meet Adam in person last year and despite the saying, ‘never meet your heroes’, he was the humble and kind man I’d imagined him to be.
I couldn’t quite get past my nerves quick enough to articulate to him how important his 2013 journey was for me, but Adam, if by chance you ever read this, please know you’ve helped young blackfullas like me find their voice and stamp out hatred through your actions.
I once thought 2013 was a year I’d rather forget, but upon reflection, Adam’s inspiring resilience makes it one worth cherishing. Not only for myself as a proud Aboriginal woman, but for Australia as a proud First Nations’ country.
Marlee Silva is a proud Kamilaroi/Dunghutti woman living on Dharrawal country in the Sutherland Shire, NSW. She is the founder of Indigenous female empowerment network @tiddas4tiddas. She is passionate about culture and above all else, is full of opinions and is a self-professed nerd. Follow Marlee @Marlee_Silva.
Powerful documentary The Final Quarter is currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival. For information, go to the SFF website.