Kuku Yalanji woman Cathy Freeman was the most prominent person in recent media coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Sydney Olympics. She was acclaimed for unifying the nation in 2000 by lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony winning a gold medal in the 400 metres, and then celebrating by waving the Australian flag and the Australian Aboriginal flag on the track.
Some typical examples were: “Australians felt a sea change in attitudes towards the first Australians after the Games opening ceremony; “Freeman and the Olympics showed how united, as a nation, we could be”; and “One flag, one moment: “How Cathy Freeman single-handedly became a symbol for Aboriginal reconciliation at the Olympics”.
This is the identical discourse of “enlightened racism” the media used to portray Freeman in 2000. This insidious practice enables non-indigenous Australians to applaud a female Aboriginal athlete for being “one of us”, but ignore intergenerational structures of disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The ABC TV documentary, FREEMAN, was a rare counterpoint to this trope. The film used a portmanteau of cinematic and documentary techniques, Aboriginal motifs, archival material, and voice-overs and intimate personal reflections by Freeman.
While enlightened racism imparts comforting messages, FREEMAN unsettlingly addressed “sites of silence and absence” in Anglocentric versions of history.
This setting allowed Freeman to tell her story away from what she called “the beast” and “the noise” – her terms for the media. While enlightened racism imparts comforting messages, FREEMAN unsettlingly addressed “sites of silence and absence” in Anglocentric versions of history.
For instance, Freeman revealed being embarrassed being “a black kid” and “devastated” whenever she smiled at people who wouldn’t smile back. Another illustration is Freeman’s quest to discover her family history. This was an unavoidable tale of intergenerational trauma. Freeman recounted being appalled over the racism her great grandfather, Frank Fisher, and his family endured even though he served overseas during WW1. The film has a dreamlike aura and in one segment a full screen, black and white photo of Frank in his Light Horse uniform appears with captions about his racist treatment by authorities.
Freeman also praises how she has been inspired by her mother, Cecelia, her stepfather and first coach, Bruce Barber, and older sister, Anne Marie, who was born with cerebral palsy and died in 1990.
These stories explain Freeman’s motivations for using her fame to engender pride among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, promote justice and reconciliation, and empower children with her foundation.
FREEMAN received high praise, especially from Aboriginal viewers. However, Liberal Party federal MP Tim Smith used it as an opportunity for “whitelash”. During the screening, ABC journalist Patricia Karvelas tweeted about being deeply moved by Freeman displaying the Aboriginal flag in 2000. Smith responded by tweeting “Leave the politics out of sport”. He also replied to another tweet by Karvelas containing three Aboriginal-coloured heart emojis by posting one of the Australian flag.
Smith’s shibboleth about sport and politics ignores these two institutions have always been closely entwined, with the notoriously political and hypocritical International Olympic Committee a conspicuous example. Wiradjuri man and social researcher James Blackwell highlighted Smith’s specious reasoning of indigenous people being praised when they succeed in sport but called ‘un-Australian’ if they protest against black deaths in custody.
At the same time the media was recycling delusions about Freeman unifying Australia, Jemma Mi Mi, a young Wakka Wakka woman who idolises Freeman, was being used to promote the inaugural indigenous round of Super Netball. Mi Mi is the sole indigenous player in the competition and was looking forward to representing her culture and inspiring young indigenous girls.
However she sat on the bench for the game, even though her team had been eliminated from the finals. Ironically, the ‘Our Stories’ section of Super Netball’s website states, “From bench warmer to game changer, Queensland Firebird Jemma Mi Mi plays the game with her heart on her sleeve and with pride in her heart”.
Coach Roselee Jencke issued a late-night statement saying it had been a “selection issue” and the club had “misread community expectations”.
Fans who slammed the decision were furthered angered when officials refused to comment, and then released a late-night statement from the coach, Roselee Jencke, saying it had been a “selection issue” and the club had “misread community expectations”.
For Tharawal and Yorta Yorta woman and university lecturer, Robyn Oxley, the episode typified: “The blatant tokenism and ‘tick-a-box’ exercise that sporting organisations undertake”.
Walbunga and Bidigal woman Marcia Ella-Duncan, the first of only two Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders ever selected for the national team, said it was another example of netball refusing to accept responsibility and the action could “only be described as racism”. She added that Mi Mi was handed “a burden that should never have been hers”.
The following week Mi Mi came off the bench and contributed solidly to her team’s victory. Afterward, a tearful Mi Mi was embraced by her teammates and Jencke and congratulated by players on the opposing team. Jencke stated she “possibly” would have made a different decision about benching Mi Mi but maintained her “job description” was to win. In a massive understatement she also said, “It’s been a really sad week and we all need to do it a hell of a lot better”. Netball Australia later announced a ‘declaration of Commitment’ to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, coaches, umpires and administrators. Jencke resigned shortly after the announcement.
These two incidents are examples of centuries of “willful amnesia” about the violent dispossession, decimation and dehumanisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The retroactive fantasy that Freeman brought Australians together demonstrates the persistent and pernicious nature of enlightened racism. The abject treatment of Mi Mi shows the failure of inclusion policies based on “window dressing” instead of a “justice rationale”, and how an organisation “forgot” it was supposed to be celebrating indigenous week.
The retroactive fantasy that Freeman brought Australians together demonstrates the persistent and pernicious nature of enlightened racism.
Moreover, these events occurred at a time when athletes around the world, including indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, were, and still are, prominent in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
These brave women’s stories are also symptomatic of the long, hard road to substantive reconciliation. This includes the national crisis of indigenous deaths in custody, yet another grim Closing The Gap report, rejections by Coalition governments of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
In this context, Freeman’s 400m victory and FREEMAN were “utopian moments” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, while the whitestream media exalted the 20th anniversary for creating a national unity that has never existed. As Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man, social commentator, and university chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging, Stan Grant, notes, Freeman never could have united the nation:
“… as much as I wanted to believe in hope, I was troubled that Australia could so easily be absolved of its sins. As if a sporting event, a race, one athlete, was all it would take to cleanse ourselves. It was too much to expect that one runner and one race could save us; you cannot erase two centuries in 49.11 seconds”.
For all the zombie myths about Freeman uniting Australians, there was only one story on how she celebrated the anniversary. It was by launching Stride for Education, a virtual running event to increase awareness of, and raise funds for, her foundation’s education programs with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Like most of Freeman’s undertakings, it was inspired by a lifelong “gift” from Cecelia:
“Don’t ever forget where you’ve come from, mum said. Don’t ever forget who you are. I hope I’m being true to that in my own life. I want to pour everything into where I’m from.”