[NOTE: I wish I had have thought of a title other than “Perceived Racism and Rob Thomas”. It was rushed and a poor choice. A friend rightly pointed out the notion of perceived racism is liberally applied by racists to instances of racism, such as blackface, to invalidate the idea that such instances are in fact racist. I apologise to any who have been offended by such language, but I shall keep the post as is for the sake of transparency.]
Last week at a concert in Melbourne, Matchbox 20’s lead singer Rob Thomas joked that he would “keep drinking til I think I’m a black Australian.” People have reacted by lambasting him on social media, accusing him of racism; even after a public apology on his Facebook page, critics have continued to attack him.
Of course, such a joke is playing on the racist stereotype that Aboriginal people are problem drinkers. I, with many others, took to Twitter to personally correct Thomas and his pathetic apology: “In order to have made that statement you have to have known the stereotype! Your apology is tainted by your excuses!” Thomas said that he had cried in his room about how his joke was taken, and no doubt due to the response he has received from it.
After my initial period of annoyance, I came across an article from the Guardian that, for the first time that I had seen, clearly displayed Thomas’ comment in the context in which it was said. The “joke,” commenting on how he was planning to deal with his jetlag, went as follows: “When you get on the plane on your way here, you start drinking. And then I drink til I think I’m Australian. And then I keep drinking til I think I’m a black Australian. And then I drink til I think I’m a pretty little girl.” (listen for yourself: https://youtu.be/L-hlDxNDVso) In a further explanation on his Facebook page, Thomas explained that “these were 3 things I chose at random to represent 3 things I’m not. I’m not Australian. I’m not black and I’m not a little girl.” To flesh that out, Thomas was making a joke that in order to deal with his jetlag he would drink a lot, becoming so drunk that he would think he was something he was not.
So, given the context, what Thomas said was not a racist joke anchored in the stereotype that all Aboriginal people are drunks, but a joke about him dealing with his jetlag by getting outrageously drunk. The only thing I can see in that statement which could be racist, as Thomas was told, is the term “black Australian,” which is not racist anyway, except in the eyes of mainly white city dwellers who don’t know any Aboriginal people personally. Some might have an issue with him calling Aboriginal people “Australian,” myself among them, but that can be chalked up to excusable ignorance, ignorance of the same kind that any other person alien to the Australian Aboriginal political context and struggle would share.
Okay, so what now? Many Aboriginal people have understandably perceived Thomas’ joke as racist. The narrative that Thomas has called Aboriginal people drunks and that he should make up and/or pay for it is already engrained in people’s minds; the damage is already done. Indeed, this narrative fits our experience as Aboriginal people, and it’s hard to see otherwise, especially given the way the media has been portraying the statement.
Along with continuing attacks, there have been calls from the Aboriginal community for Thomas to make amends by various shows of recompense for his wrong doing. Whether it’s musical collaborations, meetings with elders and other prominent figures from which he can learn about Aboriginal culture and current affairs, Thomas is expected in one way or another to make up for his verbal assault on Aboriginal people.
I mean, sure, why not take the opportunity to educate the man about Aboriginal people and culture? After all, he is touring on Aboriginal lands. The least he can do is learn, as we expect of all people here.
Yet the reality is that Rob Thomas did not make a racist joke that Aboriginal people are drunks, and we need to stop ignoring this just because it’s convenient for us. We are not entitled to anything from Thomas, no matter how offended we may be. We owe it to ourselves as Aboriginal people to apply critical thinking here and realise that the only racism in this situation is perceived racism. Otherwise we will be ineffective with our time and energy, spending ourselves on the counter productive task of berating an innocent man.
Who we should be angry with is the media, who are continuing to milk us for clicks and ad revenue over this story which they have blown out of proportion. From the start news sources have misrepresented what Thomas said, quoting him out of context and portraying him as a racist. That is simply not a truthful retelling.
The Aboriginal struggle and the struggle against racism in general is not helped by wasting energy attacking the wrong people and spreading misinformation about what racism is. We need to move past the narrative we have assumed about this incident which confirms our biases. We should be spending our energy criticising actual racism, like the other week when those two white guys dressed up in blackface as Aboriginal people, complete with laplaps and a mock smoking ceremony. That’s a worthwhile fight. Demanding recompense from a man who at worst made a poor choice of words is not.