It has been something of a commonplace to essentialize marginalized people as animals.
Animalisation and even bacterialisation are widespread elements of racist dehumanisation. They are closely related to the labelling of others with the language of contamination and disease. Images that put men on a level with rats carrying epidemic plagues were part of the ideological escort of anti-Jewish and anti-Chinese racism. . . . To throw bananas in front of black sportspeople is a common racist provocation even today. (Comparing black people to monkeys has a long, dark simian history, The Conversation Feb. 28, 2016).
Not a Gorilla. Not an Emblem.
Professor Melissa L. Tatum, University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law
Dr. Jennifer Hendry, University of Leeds School of Law
Social media has recently been swamped with reactions to the tragic incident at the Cincinnati Zoo, which resulted in death of Harambe, the zoo’s gorilla. Most of those conversations concern the (in)actions of the zoo and the parents. Last week, however, a meme popped up in Australia that took the conversation in an unexpected and disturbing direction. The meme involved a picture of the gorilla with the words “RIP Adam Goodes” superimposed in white letters. (We have deliberately opted not to link to it here).
Many outside Australia will probably never have heard of Adam Goodes and so would have scrolled right past the picture without understanding the shocking nature of what it represented. Those who work in the field of Indigenous rights, however, or who are fans of Australian Rules Football, would almost certainly have been appalled.
Adam Goodes is an Adnyamathanha/Narungga man who played Australian Rules Football for the Sydney Swans. He is recognized as a leader both in his Aboriginal community and the Australian public sphere, as evidenced by his being named 2014 Australian of the Year. His career was marked by two significant controversies involving race and indigeneity. The first incident occurred in May 2013, and involved a 13 year old fan of the opposing team. The fan called Goodes an “ape” and, after he pointed her out to security, the girl was ejected from the stadium. Two years later, during a match in May 2015, Goodes celebrated scoring a goal by performing a tradition Aboriginal dance that included miming the throwing of a spear. He was then subject to an intense public backlash, much of which concerned the mime, with many commentators citing it as overly violent and intimidating. Goodes was subsequently heckled, booed, and otherwise verbally abused whenever he turned out to play. He eventually took an indefinite leave, and this was followed shortly thereafter by his decision to retire from the game.
Of particular irony here is that both matches were part of a series called the Indigenous Round, the specific purpose of which is to celebrate the contribution of the Australian Football League’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players. As sports presenter Tracey Holmes pointed out, “the Adam Goodes booing saga goes to the heart of this nation. And standing in the middle of it all is the Indigenous football star himself, who must wrestle with who he is, what he represents and where he's expected to take us.”
The idea of an athlete being held responsible for leading a nation in a particular direction seems to be asking entirely too much of one individual, particularly when that person is simultaneously being asked to deny part of his own identity. The Australian public applauded Adam Goodes when he was a football star, but the instant his behavior became overtly cultural, he ceased to be an athlete and became an Aboriginal athlete. It appears the public was willing to support Goodes on the condition that he did not behave overtly “Indigenous”. Once he publicly and inextricably self-identified with his cultural heritage, he was labeled “Aboriginal” and that label became the sum total of his identity.
This process of essentializing and reducing people to a one-dimensional, often negative stereotype is not unique to Australia: It is a tool used in many countries and in many contexts, including in the United States. One of the major issues confronting tribes and Native peoples in the U.S. is the inability to control their identity, which is often under siege by those who view Indigenous identity and culture as something to be commercialized and exploited.
Last month, a federal court in New Mexico dismissed most of a lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation against the retailer Urban Outfitters for, among other things, marketing a product called “Navajo panties.” Urban Outfitters is only one of a string of American companies seeking to profit from Native identity and culture. Two other examples that spring readily to mind are Victoria’s Secret and the mascot controversies. Unfortunately, given the way U.S. law is written, the primarily vehicle for stopping Urban Outfitters’ cultural appropriation was for the Navajo Nation to file a trademark infringement suit. Think about that for a moment - the only way for a sovereign government to stop the marketing and sale of an offensive product using its name and for which it did not give its permission is to cast itself as a competing economic force. To add insult to injury, the federal court dismissed those claims on the grounds that the Navajo Nation was not sufficiently famous, that is, it could not meet the burden of establishing that it was a household name. Tell that to the Navajo codetalkers who played such a pivotal role in the second world war. Tell that to the Navajo silversmiths and weavers whose work is in demand internationally and is in museum collections around the globe. Tell that to the government of the Navajo Nation, whose territory is larger than ten of the U.S. states.
It is 2016. It is time to make real progress in relationships with Indigenous people. And the first step is to recognize and treat them as people. They are not zoo animals. Nor are they historical oddities good for generating a quick buck.
Melissa L. Tatum, Research Professor of Law, University of Arizona James E. Rogers College Law, has worked in Indian country for two decades, specializing in issues involving tribal courts and tribal governments, as well as in issues of law, culture, and identity.
Jennifer Hendry is a Lecturer in Jurisprudence at the University of Leeds School of Law. She researches in the areas of legal and social theory, and comparative socio-legal studies, with a particular focus on legal pluralism and legal culture.