Perceived Racism and Rob Thomas

[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.

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30 thoughts on “Perceived Racism and Rob Thomas

  1. What a wonderful AUSTRALIAN thing to do by explaining that the way you did…
    That’s what us Australians are all
    About yeah? Forgiveness ….
    Good onya maaaatttttteeee!

  2. Thank you for setting this straight. The USA knows a little about racism – as noted by USA Today which only published the “Black Aussie” part. Media is always on a witch hunt but In this case, it would be difficult to find a more charitable and genuinely caring individual who just mis-spoke.

  3. Okay as an American I guess I am going to show my ignorance but I have a question that I hope does not come off as racist. Rob does not mention Aboriginal people at all in his joke. Are all black people in Australia considered Aboriginal? I’m just trying to understand the mind set.

    1. The phrase “black Australians” more often than not is used to refer to Aboriginal people, not to people of African descent. Such people would be African, or African Australians, but rarely if ever would they be referred to as black Australians.

  4. I was called a racist black idiot and a bitch because i said what Rob Thomas said was not racist . Im glad that you explained the situation .

  5. Well said, I was at this concert and when the collective groan went up halfway (and I mean halfway) through his chat he honestly said “don’t be racist” clearly not understanding why we groaned. He then completed with the the drinking until I’m a pretty little girl. He very clearly had no idea of the impact such a statement would make and has now made several heartfelt posts about his shame and upset that he has hurt or offended anyone. Racism is absolutely an issue here in our backyard but crucifying a celebrity who has worked hard for these causes (both human and animal rights) for an unintended slight which was directed at himself is utterly ridiculous and might I add un-Australian.

    1. Thanks Stacey. I feel the issue of intent is not so important here. The primary issue for me is that, given the context, the objective interpretation of Rob’s joke is as not racist, regardless of his intention.

      1. I too was at the concert on Saturday night and I was not one of the ones that “groaned” half way through the joke (which was getting him through a technical sound issue in his ear). So clearly, he was distracted by the buzzing sound in his ear, and jet lagged. I love Rob, and will continue to love Rob, and what he said and how it was reported was so far out of context I cannot believe it. No body can say the two words ‘Black’ and ‘Australian’ in the same sentence anymore, unless you’re actually indigenous yourself. I think people need to relax somewhat and move forward, because really if we don’t, we will still be having this fight another 200 years down the road.
        Australia is so rich in it’s diversity. The natural beauty of all it’s people, of ALL creeds is just amazing, when we just stop and love one another as humans. That’s what I am teaching my children.

  6. Very well said. I am so absolutely disgusted with media like Pedestrian and Music Feeds who keep framing this as racist just because it suits them rather than helps anyone. It’s faux-progressive nonsense and I believe they are intent on skewering the man and his career just because they don’t like his music. They are the ones who deserve this critical eye turned in on them, but that’s not going to happen.

  7. OMG ! Seriously…rob thomas racist ? To my knowledge mr thomas has never before uttered a single word of racsism or predudise of any kind. Are people that bored in thier own lives that they need to plant crap like this in minds of others who are bored as well. We see an artist with a good respectable career, who does good for people and animals in need, in a great marriage and we just have to scar his reputation. This will never go away. Even with the explanation and apology, these words will remain part of what people will say in the future.
    One more point for fucked up society.

  8. I was at the concert and it was not intended nor was it ment to be racist was simply making a joke to witch I add just about everyone was laughing ! Rob is the most loveing careing idols I see on a regular basis and follow ! ! ! They need to just drop it and move on they media has battered him up enough over it the last few days ! !

  9. I was taken aback on hearing it the first time. But after several viewings you can see the context and it wasn’t racist at all. Plus Rob said sorry straight away. It was just ignorance, nothing more.

  10. god why don’t you all get a life!!
    Why should he say sorry – he did nothing wrong.
    What a pack of jerks
    Is it going to be that no-one can say anything anymore without be harassed about it for the rest of their lives?

  11. You know what when I heard the hype i was annoyed by it so i went and had a look st the video. I then did a Google on him to find more about him. I came to this conclusion what WAS a racist thing to say i am offended by it. But do i think he is a racist NO i don’t. I just think he make a joke not knowing the ramifications behind it. Alot of white australian think all us black australians (Aboriginal people) do is line up for welfare so we can get our grog (alcohol) and when this is said out loud by a non aboriginal people it is racist this is why we are upset by it. Not because he said it out of ignorance but because this is what we are often attacked with by the racist people in australia and yes we are sensitive to this type of talk because we get it diced in our face daily. I haven’t dunk alcohol in about 5 years in. I’m 38 yrs old and when i did i think I’ve only ever been so drunk i had to go to bed once in my life. I work hard to provide for my kids have been since i was an adult. I also worked as a teenager wuth my father in a shearing shed (It’s not easy by the way) so hearing someone say what he said yes it was bad and wrong to say it has been said by racist people and to say it wasn’t or its not that bad then all you’re doing is belittling how we are treated. I saw his apology and i do think he is sincere but what’s done is done but please accept that is was offensive and a racist comment made by someone who didn’t know.

  12. The question is surely whether Aboriginal Australians were offended – and they were overwhelmingly offended. He met with an Aboriginal elder who is also an award winning photographer and also invited her to photograph his concert. Thomas didn’t try to wriggle out of the impact of his statement – and sincerely opened up to learn about culture and to apologize . We should take our lead from Aboriginal Australians and Thomas himself. It was offensive .

    1. Hey Karen. Thanks for the comment. I agree, Aboriginal people were offended. I am an Aboriginal person, and I was very offended when I first saw his comments. However, as I’ve said in this article, I believe we were offended not because we saw what he actually said in context, but because the media told us he had said something racist (take this article from Pedestrian for example – https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/music/rob-thomas-welcomes-work-with-aboriginal-photograp/4ddb717e-db88-4df1-94df-8f10d64b262f.htm). In the eyes of the media, he didn’t say anything but “I drink til I think I’m a Black Australian.” This is a false representation of what was said. Everybody was duped by the media about this.

      Regarding the meeting with Auntie, Rob HAD to do that. This has been a PR nightmare, and his publicists would not have given him a choice but to do that. He needed to do that, lest he be further condemned. And we’re so caught up in thinking that he said something racist that we nearly can’t see it any other way. In Auntie’s own words, she said, “and all I heard was”… that’s all we all heard, because of the media

    2. And to be sure, I agree that he should have apologised, for the offence caused. But we all need to step back and ask ourselves what the truth of the matter is, instead of just listening to the media.

  13. Is this what this really what we choose to worry about?? Someone says something that wasn’t meant to hurtful at all, and every butt hurt person on the planet jumps on him?? And we wonder why there is so much hate in this world. Its because everyone is offended by EVERYTHING. Yeah, he probably shouldn’t have said that, if he didn’t want the people who take everything personally to cut his throat for it… move on people!

  14. Coen as a middle aged,non drinking, Educated, business owning, aboriginal woman, I accept and agree with what you have said. There is still one thing however that IS bothering me – If Thomas didnt know that it would be presumed to be a racist comment, (whether it was or was not, whether is was intended or not) then why, when the audience moaned, did Thomas state to them NOT TO BE Racist ?

    1. Hi Tracy, sorry for the late reply. I think he told them not to be racist because he thought they were booing black australians. That’s how I make sense of it anyway. Even if what he said was ignorantly racist, that’s the only I can make sense of him telling them not to be racist

      1. ENOUGH ALREADY. THIS IS SO OLD. ITS DONE. FINI. LET IT GO. YA GOT ALOT OF ENERGY. GO BUILD A SHELTER FOR HOMELESS KIDS. DO SOME GOOD. AND LET ROB GET BACK TO MAKING MUSIC.
        STFU !!!

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