Why should I forgive Dawn Fraser?

Some of us like to entertain the notion that racists are relics of a bygone era…

Some of us like to entertain the notion that racists are relics of a bygone era…

This week, Australian Olympic swimming legend Dawn Fraser went on television and said tennis players Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic should “go back where their parents came from.”

Before the day was out, she issued this statement: “I want to unreservedly apologise for any comment that I made this morning which may have caused offence to my fellow Australians including Nick and his family.”

She continued, “My intended message, which was not delivered as articulately as it could have been, was on a purely sporting level rather than meant as an attack on Nick’s ethnicity.”

Any rational person should find this difficult to believe: how did an attack on a person’s “sporting level” become an attack on his ethnicity? The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

I’ll tell you how – and it’s an uncomfortable truth that no one likes to admit: every Australian child of the 70s and 80s, without exception, knows the phrase “go back to wherever you came from.”

If you don’t know it, you either weren’t in Australia at the time or you’re just kidding yourself. I know it because that’s what all the kids said in primary school. It wouldn’t surprise me if it happened in the 50s and 60s as well.

When you learn how to attack other people at such a young age, it becomes a reflex. It requires no thought. It’s thoughtless.

That is why Dawn Fraser deserves our forgiveness. Multiculturalism is an ideal to work towards, and getting there means recognising and forgiving the mistakes we make along the way.

But would I ever invite her into my home?

I must admit I’d have difficulty with that.

Because, unfortunately, I now know what she really thinks of me.

There are many hateful things we learn never to utter again over the course of our lives, things we’re ashamed to know and that we strive not to pass on to our children.

I question whether Dawn ever learned that lesson.

I have no doubt that when she’s in the privacy of her home, surrounded by her closest friends, they’ll tell her “I know what you really meant. There was nothing wrong with what you said.” Would you blame her for believing them?

In a week’s time, maybe a month, Dawn’s life will go back to normal. It will be as though it never happened, and she’ll be able to get on with her life and pretend it was all a bad dream.

It won’t be so simple for someone like me. Now that someone so high in profile has said such a hateful phrase so publicly, others will feel empowered to repeat it. To my face. To my friends. To my family. To Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic.

I’m not trying to be dramatic – some coward actually said it to the back of my head as I alighted an elevator two days ago.

Where is the fairness in that?

I’ll answer that for you in case there’s any doubt: there isn’t any.



About today’s photo: this is a parlour ornament, a near forgotten relic of British colonialism in which taxidermists put new and exotic birds inside sealed glass domes. This particular parlour ornament dates back to the late 1800s and is occasionally trotted out to museums to remind us of the curious world we once lived in. I like to think of racists this way from time to time, except we all know that’s pure fantasy.

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