Recently a popular Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine stoked up some controversy by pledging not to stand up for the Australian national anthem.
“I can’t stand for something that’s blatantly racist, man. Advance Australia Fair when it’s really Advance Australia White;” said Mundine.
His comments came ahead of his match with Danny Green on Friday night where Green won a very tight match. Mundine did not enter the ring until after the anthem was played. The anthem was sung by Aboriginal singer Jessica Mauboy. According to Mundine, “They are just using her because she is black.”
But why did Mundine have to bring politics into sports? Why couldn’t he just be politically “neutral” at a major sporting event like his rival Danny Green, who said, after having won the match, “…this has nothing to do with black or white, this is a fight, it is sport.”?
May be the answer lies in the difference between their relative social positions. Green is white Australian, while Mundine is Aboriginal. Mundine comes from a community that has been ravaged by the brutality inflicted on them by White Australia, and his community continues to suffer the consequences to this day. Therefore, a boxing match is not merely sport for him. It is a means to convey a message – to speak for a community whose voice remains largely unheard.
This is not the first time that Mundine took a stance against the Australian national anthem, and his decision has been criticised by some, including the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, himself.
Mundine’s stance has usually been described as “divisive” by those who have criticised his position, which points to an interesting, yet sad, fact about the Australian society.
Labelling Mundine’s position as “divisive” reinforces the myth that the Australian society is an “undivided” whole, where everyone gets along merrily and everyone has an equal opportunity, until someone decides to disrupt this imaginary unity.
Political discourses on the nature of the Australian society revolves around symbolism – the anthem, the flag, Australia Day, ANZAC day, etc. – as if these are symbols of a unified Australia, symbols with an innocent past and a neutral, egalitarian present.
Perhaps that is why Mundine wants to bust the myth.
“The anthem was written in late 1700s where blackfullas (sic) were considered fauna (animals) advance Australia fair as in white not fair as in fair go…”, he said last year.
He said it was time to “start changing Australia’s ignorant mentality.”
The symbols of Australian-ness help construct the “ignorant mentality” that Mundine is trying to fight, because they allow us to gloss over the brutal extermination of Aboriginal communities and their history upon which Australia was built. How can Australia be “young”, as described by the anthem, when Aboriginal people have a history of thousands of years living in this land until European colonialism almost wiped them out?
Moreover, the myth of an egalitarian Australia created by such symbolism ignores the deep divisions that fracture the Australian society. The Indigenous community not only has suffered a brutal past since European colonisation, but they continue to suffer injustices today in a self-proclaimed “free and fair” society.
The disproportionate number of arrests and imprisonment of Aboriginal people, the alarming rate of deaths in custody, the continued forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families, all speak volumes about the discrimination the Indigenous community faces day in day out.
An Indigenous leader quite bluntly, yet aptly, described Australia’s criminal justice system as one that continues to “suck us up like a vacuum cleaner and deposit us like waste in custodial institutions”.
The discrimination they face is institutional. It’s systemic. It’s structural. The anthem and the flag are merely the icing and cherry on top of a deeply divided society, where the privileged can just sit back and enjoy grand sporting events, while those from communities not as fortunate have to make the most out of any opportunity (even a sporting one) to make their, otherwise subdued, voices heard.
Yet, when the popular mainstream imaginary of a unified Australian society is challenged with such inconvenient truths, it is those who speak out that are labelled as “divisive”, not the institutionalised discrimination that many feel the brunt of in their everyday lives.
This points to another function of the symbolism of “Australian-ness”. If by challenging the dominant notions surrounding national symbols one is, by default, trying to divide the society, then all avenues of any substantive criticism of the current conditions of society are inevitably closed off. Only those oppositional voices would be heard and given platform, which largely remain within the broad parameters defined by the mainstream. Now, that, in itself, undermines Australia’s self-description of being “free” and “fair”. It is only “free” for certain people. It is only “fair” for certain people. And these people happen to be not Aboriginals, not Muslims, not immigrants, not refugees etc.
Therefore, while creating the myth of a free and fair Australia, the national anthem, flag, and all these other symbolic markers of Australian-ness also construct the exaggerated and unwarranted fear of minority communities that purportedly threaten the purity of the society – lazy and alcoholic Aboriginals, radical Muslims, immigrants stealing jobs, “boat people” threatening national security, etc.
We may not agree with Mundine one hundred percent on his political stance. But his refusal to acknowledge the national anthem is an opportunity for us all to reflect on the real injustices and discriminations that plague the society, rather than pointing fingers at him for being “divisive”.