Monday, 22 February 2016



Update Tuesday 23 February 2015, 12.30pm:  This blog post was prompted by a recent incident in Australia.  
Rob Thomas best known as singer/songwriter of Matchbox20 is currently touring. 
He said some things at a concert. It triggered a social media firestorm.  He apologized quickly, twice on Facebook (links included below). That was good enough for me.  
I decided to make some comments of my own. Rob Thomas’s response is also linked below.  
If I had known the page hits to my blog post would be over 30,000 in 24 hours I may have taken longer than an hour to write it, but it is what it is.  Thanks for reading.  

The last time I heard Smooth, it was a Sunday afternoon in January. A cover band was playing at the country pub down on the corner from my house.

It sounded pretty good.  It wasn’t Santana featuring Rob Thomas, but it was kind of awesome to listen while sitting on my verandah. It's a good song.

Smooth was on repeat play in my car for months in 1999 and into the turn of the century.  I know all the words.  My young cousins would hear that song now and say, 'that’s Aunty Siv’s song'.

For that reason - and a growing uneasiness because I couldn’t quite work out what had happened on Saturday night - I decided to take a closer look at the latest outrage flaming across the internet. 

People who know me know I’m a maverick. You wont see me on any outrage trains.  But I can't help but notice them when they are on Twitter.

Anatomy of an Outrage

Melbourne, Australia.  Saturday night.  Rob Thomas had a few words to say while they were sorting out his stage set.  Banter, they call it.
“When you get on the plane on your way here, you start drinking,” Thomas said. “And then I drink until I think I’m Australian. And then I keep drinking until I think I’m a black Australian.”
This is what he said. It is confirmed when you look at the video tape.  He has a great voice.  Clear as day you can hear him say those words.

And that’s when the trouble started.

Accusations of racism and perpetuating negative stereotypes about Indigenous Australians abusing alcohol were being tweeted while he was still in concert, then later that night, over the next day, and now on Monday morning, it’s still going. 

The furore around the remarks has crawled into a Monday, which if anyone who follows Twitter will know, is when the molten core of online outrage erupts.  People are returning to work. If they didn’t catch it on the weekend, they have a perfect water cooler topic to discuss.

And Australia barely goes a month (a week?) without racism being a hot issue.

That’s one way to look at The Incident.

But while you are looking at it, take a look at the video that is available of the night.  So far, I have only found the version that is 18 seconds long.  You may notice that there is booing, cheering and it fades into silence.

Rob Thomas apologised the morning following the concert. He then followed it up in his second apology and clarified what it was that he had actually said, and mentions the words that you don’t hear on the audio recording.

From Rob Thomas’s second apology:
I said I drank until I thought I was Australian. Then I drank so much that I thought I was a black Australian and then I drank so much I thought I was a little Australian girl. 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. Again, if I had any idea of the stereotype I would have chosen another example. There was absolutely no malice even in jest.
Now listen to the audio again. Hmm, it doesn’t include the reference to the little girl.

Does that change anything?

Well, yes it does.

It changes it significantly.

Now just imagine a different scenario.

Rob Thomas makes some cheerful banter with the audience.  He could have just said ‘Hello Melbourne, so happy to be here’ or “how about them … women cricketers’ or ‘I cant wait to see a koala’.  Lots of things he could have said.

But he chose to make a joke.  I’ve heard variations of that joke before.  I think anyone who has seen a fair amount of comedy would say transformations is a common subject, a rich source for comedy.

And just suppose Rob Thomas’s remarks were self-deprecating.  He was making fun of himself.  And welcoming Australian fans into his show.  And paying homage to Indigenous Australians.

If you think that it is common for visiting musicians up on stage facing their adoring audience – in fact any musicians - to acknowledge Indigenous Australians, you are dead wrong.

If I had been at the venue, I would have got the joke, as soon as I heard ‘little girl’.

And I would have sensed the chk chk boom as people tweeted what they had just heard and it rapidly caught fire on Twitter.  In 140 characters, who has space to include the reference to the little girl? 

There was booing in the crowd.  Black Australia is 3% of the Australian population, so it’s good to hear that the largely nonIndigenous Australians were concerned about what at first appeared to be a blatantly offensive remark.

It wasn’t until Rob Thomas had apologized twice in writing on Facebook that the full story emerged.

And I am choosing to believe him. 

Why wouldn’t I?  He has made a public apology and given a full account of him self.  People would readily dispute his claims, if he hadn’t in fact said what he claimed in his explanation.

So, he hadn’t intended to draw on a racist stereotype, and one that Indigenous Australians have reason to be sensitive about, at all.

But saying he knew Indigenous Australians existed will not be sufficient for some.  I know that. We are so diverse, you are lucky if you can get two people in a room who can agree on what to call us, or how to refer to us.  And that is our right.

For example, I am black.  I am a black Australian. I am other names as well, but black Australian doesn’t offend me one little bit.

How would a visiting musician know the undercurrents specific to Australia's particular brand of loathsome bigotry?

If people in Australia can continue to post photos of themselves in blackface, and claim they didn’t know it was offensive, how does a man from another country have any idea you can’t link alcohol to black Australians without concerns it contributes to ongoing and disastrous repercussions for how we are perceived in our own country?  

Of course, we’d be in the same boat if we travelled to another country.

Take the US for example.  It takes quite some digging to get the nuances of Black American politics.  It’s obvious already from previous intercontinental Twitter wars that there are even areas of dispute between ‘Black' and 'black’ people.

We have quite different approaches to what is known as ‘passing’.  In Australia, our narrative tends to favour the notion that it is a choice whether an Aboriginal person with 'lighter' skin colour accesses their 'white privilege'.  When a person claims they are aware they have it, but don’t access it, they’re rarely challenged.  (This is bound to change in the future, of this I am certain).

But from what I gather – and true, I got it from the internet, so I can't vouch for 100% accuracy, - but the US position is that as far as 'passing' goes, it is not an opt in, opt out situation.  The world issues the pass, whether the recipient wants to access the benefits they automatically receive or not.

A highly contentious issue, with quite different perspectives. 
So why raise it?

Because bringing down the force of ten thousand midday suns on a bloke who didn’t mean to offend, or insult anyone is unfair. It is gravely unfair.  It is way out of proportion to any offence he may have committed.

And because there is no tribunal, no central governing body of commentary, no authorizing agency for black opinion in Australia, no one to sort this out, I am free and feel I need to respond in my own way.

I am not ok with bullying.  I don’t want to be associated with bullying.  I am black….so I can’t escape being associated with the bullying when it is done in black Australia’s name.  People are entitled to their opinion, their hurt and their anger. 

Quite frankly, Indigenous Australians are entitled to be furious all day long.

But unless it is plainly said, the impression is that Aboriginal Australia all think alike.  Of course we don’t.

But even if it is only me, I wouldn’t be my mothers daughter if I was silent.

Now what..what should happen with events like this?

I don’t know what the penalty is for not knowing – and it is an injustice that Australia is not well aware - of the murderous and devastating consequences of settlement.  Or for not having studied over 200 years of bad social policy in Australia, before you decide to tour here.

Is there one?  Or are two apologies, and the courtesy of screening the full audio tape on line and on TV so people can make up their own minds – is that enough to get us past this?

12.56pm Update:  link to FULL VIDEO is here

To be clear, the hurt felt from casual and careless words is real for Aboriginal people.  It is life shortening.  People die from a broken heart.  Intergenerational trauma is an affliction that we have yet to find a cure for.

I am dark skinned so I know discrimination.  I’ve seen the micro aggression that flashes across even the most po-faced stranger.  It has happened millions of times in my lifetime. 

I am treated like I am a bit simple.  You should see how people try and negotiate contracts with me. 

And as per the most recent The State of Reconciliation in Australia Report, only 26% of Australians agreed that Indigenous Australians were held in high regard. 

My interpretation of this dismal finding is, if you do not trust me highly, what is medium trust, or minimal trust? If a person doesn't trust me 'highly', will I get that job I applied for, or the rental property, or the benefit of the doubt?
According to this year's Closing the Gap Report,  unemployment figures are higher now - there are less of us in jobs compared to the average Australian figures - than there were in 2008. 
Some of our more alarming statistics are stalled or going backwards. 
I could tell you these stats all day long, and because I have worked in most states in the country, I know it is Australia-wide.

So, no, I don’t underestimate our despair.

I am from outback New South Wales.  My family were forced to work for little or not pay for generations on sheep stations. We come from an area that was still segregated into the 1970s. 

The biggest thrill in town was to go to the pictures.  Our entrance was on the side, a door in a tall fence.  We walked down to the front and the seats were rows made from deck chair fabric, suspended across two poles.  

We were divided from the other patrons who sat in chairs undercover at the back, with a tuck shop for drinks and candy. When it rained, us up front, we sat in the rain.

My country is the land of the rain dancers.  I remember the rain, but I don’t remember getting any candy. 

And when people talk about the Stolen Generations, I know these stories well because I am from the land where they were stolen.  When a child is removed, their family never stops waiting for them to come home, even after death.

What Rob Thomas said isn't life or death, though he has said he feels very sad about what has happened.   If I went to another country and slipped up, talked about their passing or called them the wrong name, I wouldn’t want to be spread across their online spaces as a bigot and a fool.

Where I come from, until you did us wrong, we gave you the benefit of the doubt.  We already had enough to deal with without looking for more conflict.  And if you said the wrong thing, even when we pointed out the problem, we’d probably tell you to take a good hard look at yourself.

Rob Thomas doesn’t need my words of encouragement, but I’ll say them anyway – welcome to our country and I hope you enjoy the rest of your tour. 

Gimme your heart, make it real 
Or else forget about it


Siv Parker
A black Australian

Siv Parker. thank you so much for this blog. for the history lesson, as well as finding the rest of my "joke" online to...
Posted by Rob Thomas on Sunday, February 21, 2016

For more information about Indigenous Australians see Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies