The saga between Heritier Lumumba and the Collingwood Football Club has been bitter and long.
It has come to the fore again, after the shocking death of George Floyd, which sparked a global response through the Black Lives Matter movement.
I stand with Lumumba and his comments that Collingwood was not prepared or equipped to deal with the culture of racism he faced at the club.
To explain the reasons behind this stance, I firstly will provide you with my own personal insights of race as well as a broader personal summary of key moments in my life where race was brought to the forefront of the sport I love, Aussie rules.
My personal history with race
My personal history with race is long and complex but there are key moments I have not forgotten. I will say that some of these memories are not racial but ethnic issues, however, they make up the patchwork of my life.
I grew up in country Victoria of Hungarian/Irish ancestry, with my grandparents meeting on the boat to Australia. They left Hungary after the Second World War. Born in the mid-’80s, I do not clearly recollect key moments in Australian race history, such as Mabo. However, I do remember race/ethnicity being a part of my life, as racism was relatively common in country Victoria.
One of the clearest memories I have is of my dad. He worked in a local factory for almost 20 years. When I was very young, I realised people called dad by an anglicised version of his middle name. The reason was his first name is a rare Hungarian name, and he did not feel comfortable forcing people to call him it. He wanted to fit in so went with a name that is more easily understood by English speakers, even introducing himself to people he had never met before by this anglicised name. At the time, I did not understand why he did that.
Racism would be brought up on a regular basis. Sometimes it would be comments about the way a person drives, or about certain races having large personal appendages. One common way was through jokes, which was interesting because it was common for people to be making these jokes about races/cultures they had not regularly interacted with.
A clear memory was at footy training, where it was customary someone make a joke when everyone was warming down. Quite commonly, these jokes would be made about Aboriginal people. Although I regularly did not find them funny, I used to smile and laugh along to fit in. Personally, I used to convince myself I was laughing at the absurdity of the stereotypes people were making.
The next big moment in my life was when I was mugged by two Indigenous men on a train in Melbourne. They were a part of a bigger group of men and women, mostly Aboriginal. Still to this day I do not feel comfortable when I see large groups of Aboriginal men drinking. I know I should not feel threatened, and try my best to contain it, as I know it is not rational.
The fact was that race/ethnicity was a part of my life growing up. Sadly, I also carry a lot of shame, as there were occasions where I teased and made jokes about race. It was not only race, but any sort of difference, whether it was due to sexual choices, gender, or disability.
I liked to joke with my mates to fit in and this sometimes meant trying to push their buttons or even trying to say the most inappropriate thing possible to get a laugh. I have tried (and still do try) to legitimise it by saying others did the same – hopefully you may even understand this feeling from your own experiences?
Sometimes, I still do it, but I am trying to get better and will continue to do so. For example, I have a close family member with a disability, however, I still occasionally blurt out “You are such a retard!” when I make a mistake, even though I know the negative connotations of the word – but it is slowly getting out of my vocabulary. Sometimes these changes are so ingrained within, it will take time, but that does not mean I should not try.
I must have done a few things right at school as I was accepted to university. There I learnt about culture, race and difference. This taught me that we all naturally pick out differences between each other and then use these to make snap judgements about other people who look different. These stereotypes can happen consciously or subconsciously.
What is important is we become aware of these stereotypes and be sure not to judge others unfairly because of them – known as bias. This behaviour is completely normal and not inherently bad, however it can impact on how we assess or treat others, potentially hurting people.
Due to this I try my best to reflect on my biases and its impact on my decision-making, and try to correct it. I also try to reflect on what I say to others and what impact that might have on them.
You might remember when I spoke of certain bad drivers and people with large personal appendages? I am guessing you automatically knew which races I was referring to, even though I did not mention them. If that is true, it shows how our biases impact our decision making and our judgement. Though sometimes, unfortunately, our biases can impact in a negative way.
It also made me realise that being called a racist, although it may seem offensive, might provide you with the opportunity to look back on your behaviour and how it impacted on other people. For example, as I said, my mugging makes me cautious around certain races when they are drinking. This is me being racist as I am making prejudicial judgements based on someone’s skin colour.
When I have discussed this with friends and family, they say my feelings are justifiable, showing the complexity of racism. It is sad that the word racism is strongly emotive and has been weaponised, meaning it is difficult to have constructive conversation when it is raised. Indeed, it seems social media is incapable of having such constructive discussions.
A couple of days ago, I watched a clip by Tony Armstrong, a former Collingwood player. It is only a couple of minutes and I implore you to watch it.
In it, he explains he personally put up with racism to try to fit in. When I watched it, it felt like my own history came flooding back. I remembered my dad trying to fit in by changing his name, I remember me trying to fit in by laughing at racist jokes and also making inappropriate jokes.
Armstrong also reminded me that although the person it is directed at may seem comfortable with the inappropriate language, underneath, they too might be keeping a straight face to fit in. Perhaps you have done something you regret to fit in?
Armstrong used his experience to demonstrate his support for Lumumba, and although I am not Aboriginal, it struck a chord with me and it is part of why I stand with Lumumba.
My key memories on race in the AFL
As a country kid in Victoria, I was obsessed with football, even though I am absolutely rubbish at it. When I was in prep, my best mate in primary school at the time said I should go for the mighty Pies and I have continued to this day, becoming a member.
Race relations and footy did intersect. How far the AFL has come in race relations is up for some debate. Some may say it has progressed significantly, others say it still has a long way to go. I will not comment on the progression of race relations, but I do have some key moments/memories, including the following.
In 1991, a premiership captain said he would make a racist comment every week if he thought it could win him a game.
In 1993, St Kilda player Nicky Winmar, after being subjected to racial taunts from the opposition crowd, lifted his shirt and pointed to his skin and said: “I’m black and I’m proud to be black”.
Shortly after this iconic moment, a club president commented that if Aboriginal people conduct themselves as white people, they will be alright. These comments led to an Aboriginal man putting a curse on that club.
In 1995, a premiership ruckman called Essendon player Michael Long a racial slur. This incident led to the creation of the AFL’s racial vilification laws.
In 2013, a 13-year-old called Adam Goodes an ape. Upon hearing the abuse, Goodes pointed the girl out to security and she was ejected from the stadium.
In the week after this incident, a club president and media commentator implied Adam Goodes could promote the King Kong musical.
In 2017, Heritier Lumumba made a number of accusations about his former club through the documentary Fair Game, most notably that he was called “chimp” for several years.
These moments are some of the most historic moments of racism in the AFL. You may not have been able to tell, but in all of these moments, the perpetrator was tied to the Collingwood Football Club, whether they were a supporter, player, president or administrator.
These are some of the most significant moments on racial issues in the recent history of the AFL and they all involve one club.
If this was a person before a judge, they would be branded a serial offender and the judge would say “lock ‘em up and throw away the key!”.
Collingwood is a much-beloved sporting club, so it endures.
This is why I also stand by Lumumba. How could a club with this history possibly be culturally sensitive enough to stop someone being called an obviously racist nickname?
The Collingwood inquiry
On 22 June 2020, Collingwood announced the accusations by Lumumba had been referred to the club integrity committee. This committee will be chaired by Collingwood director Peter Murphy, Collingwood chief executive Mark Anderson and Collingwood director Jodie Sizer. Collingwood said it was in the process of seeking external and independent expertise to assist this committee.
Lumumba has said he has no plans of joining the integrity process. At first, you might ask why not? He is the one demanding action, why not participate? As you can see by who is on the integrity committee, the reality is the review is controlled by Collingwood and, if that it is the case, it would be questionable whether it could ever be independent or fair of Lumumba, in particular as he believes the club has not treated him fairly previously.
Although it is difficult to put to one side, I will not go into the accusations placed on Eddie McGuire or Nathan Buckley, even though they appear plausible. The reason is these accusations are personal and strike at the integrity of McGuire, Buckley and Lumumba and there is not enough information in the public domain to accurately assess.
I want to look at the broader accusations of whether the Collingwood Football Club was culturally prepared to handle the racism Lumumba faced.
In this, I believe it is unequivocal Collingwood as an organisation was not prepared, as demonstrated by:
From this, it does not matter that Buckley or McGuire knew the nickname existed. What matters was that it was common knowledge around the club, proving it was not an isolated incident and that it was known by senior leadership (Nick Maxwell, being the senior leader referred to).
Yet, it appears from Maxwell’s admission that there was no organisational response to the racism and no one spoke to Lumumba about whether he felt comfortable about it. This indicates Collingwood did not have the structures in place to deal with this issue.
You may ask how are they supposed to know it is racist if it is not brought up by Lumumba?
Firstly, you cannot expect people discriminated against to raise it. This can be because of various reasons, including trying to fit in. Remember Lumumba was a rookie-listed teenager when he first started – would you feel comfortable raising it with senior people at your work or club in this situation?
With my initial bravado, I say, “Of course I would!”, but deep down, I know I would not. I have worked in disability advocacy and this is a common problem, where the person who is discriminated against does not feel comfortable enough to raise it.
This is because of a number of issues and can include the considerable burden on the individual, the cost, and the potential for humiliating legal battles, where if you do win, it might solve some issues in your organisation (while making you a pariah), but it rarely goes beyond that.
That is why groups (including in some areas of disability) have started calling for more proactive measures in discrimination legislation to require more from organisations to prevent discrimination from occurring and to have in-built structures to deal with it, without relying on the person discriminated against.
As a Collingwood member, I recommend Collingwood stop the ill-fated integrity committee and make a public apology to Lumumba, saying they did not support him in the racism he faced from his time at Collingwood.
Collingwood should also put in place proactive measures to prevent such instances from occurring, such as putting in place a cultural and organisational response that does not rely on the individual discriminated against.
This provides Collingwood with the unique opportunity to own its history and take a much-needed role of leadership across the AFL in relation to race relations.
Collingwood has had decades of being on the wrong side of history with racism. It is time for it to rise up and be the face of inclusion.