‘Wow, We Got A Long Way To Go’: The Ben Simmons Saga Shows The R Word Still Haunts Us
Crown Casino "strenuously rejects" that discrimination was involved, but Ben Simmons has doubled down on his claim that he was "singled out" -- when his white friend wasn’t -- as they entered the venue on Tuesday night.
I wasn’t there, and won’t pass internet judgment on exactly what transpired, but I do unreservedly agree with Simmons when he said, "Wow, we got a long way to go".
And this is particularly the case when it comes to having uncomfortable conversations about race.
So, get ready to get uncomfortable folks, (and Twitter trolls may wish to stretch their fingers in preparation for what will invariably trigger a keyboard workout) because I am about to use the R word. A lot.
Racism. Racial profiling. Racial bias. Racial intolerance.
I’ve witnessed and been the target of all of the above. For many culturally diverse Aussies, Simmons' frustration is a familiar, if not, regular one.
I’ve seen countless examples of racial profiling at clubs and pubs, particularly when it comes to my brothers (who are of Middle Eastern appearance) and my dark-skinned husband.
Here’s just one, of far too many. After queueing for about 10 minutes outside of a bar in Melbourne, my two brothers and I got to the front of the line and the security guard lifted the barrier rope to let me pass. Very quickly he put it straight down behind me, barring my siblings from entering.
When questioned, the guards put forward every excuse imaginable:
‘It’s a private function.’
‘The venue is too full.’
‘We need more females in your group.’
‘Are you VIP members?’
And as I protested -- with my brothers urging me to calm down and not worry about it -- several others were let in. They didn’t present VIP cards, they weren’t groups of women, and somehow weren’t a burden on the head count.
They were white men. My brothers had been racially profiled.
Racial profiling is both pervasive and difficult to prove and those who refuse to accept its presence in our society are most likely those who have never experienced it.
Those who haven’t ever been at the receiving end of racism may not understand the many forms it takes, or the cunning and covert nature it can manifest in.
What we do know is that race complaints to Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission rose by nearly 90 percent in 2017-18, and the commission still believes African and Muslim communities are underreporting racism.
During another night out, this time with my husband, our group of friends (all with ID, closed shoes, completely sober) were denied entry. Appealing to the security guard (who was Pacific Islander) my husband said, “we are just here for a couple of drinks and a dance”. Seemingly torn, the man said, “I know man, it’s that I’m only allowed to let some of you in, you know, and there’s already a few in there.”
By "some of you” he meant people of colour.
After the Simmons saga, a former security guard at one of Sydney's largest entertainment venues told me that he and his colleagues were routinely "briefed" about who they should let in.
“You’re not told explicitly, but we all understood what was expected of us. If a group of young men between 18 and 25 who were Middle Eastern or African tried to enter, we had to do what we could to avoid letting them in,” he said.
The man, who worked at the venue in 2018, said there was a perception that “they would cause trouble”.
“But to be honest when it comes to who I had to escort out and those that were making problems, it was almost always white men who had way way too much to drink.”
This is also corroborated by an event promoter friend who has worked in the industry for more than 15 years.
“I have worked with many venues that have placed those restrictions on me. Too many people of any ethnicity (apart from Caucasian) is perceived as a potential problem. As though too many of one nationality could lead to gang-like behavior,” she said.
The woman said some Sydney venues would set percentages of “other” nationalities that is considered “acceptable”.
And the way they achieve this is by throwing the venue rule book, hardest, and with less wriggle room for those that aren’t white. Here, ID, clothing and gender makeup of the group is scrutinised closely.
“In particular Polynesian, African, Middle Eastern, Asian and Indian. It’s always a challenge for security guards, especially when they have to turn away their own for no good reason.”
An African-American man I spoke to told me how carefully he has to strategise when he goes out with his black friends.
“We all talk and make sure that we are wearing collared shirts, and remind each other to bring ID and not to drink and give them a reason to find an excuse to turn us away. Like it is proper planning just to have a chance to be let in,” he said.
Yet when the same man goes out with a group of white colleagues after having a few drinks at the office, he says the contrast is stark.
“We just breeze right in past the guards. We are still a group of men, some of us have had a bit to drink. They will never get it, get what it would be like if they weren’t white.”
Like Simmons, there’s no doubt I will be accused of “playing the race card”, exploiting “identity politics” or enjoying “victim status”.
And like Simmons, those judgements will most likely be passed by white men, some in positions of privilege and power due to their media jobs, who will protest the loudest and most viciously.
Racial profiling at clubs and pubs is arguably at the superficial end of the racism continuum in this country. There are far more sinister, entrenched and institutionalised forms of it.
But given allegations of racial profiling are currently making headlines, it’s simply reinforcing that discussions about race in Australia continue to lack not only nuance, but also maturity.
People are so afraid to have these uncomfortable conversations or to listen without incredulous denial that racism exists.
It's not to say that it's everywhere, or that we are accusing every Australian of being racist. But to deny or dismiss its prevalence entirely isn’t going to help address and weed out the problem. Worse still, others choose instead to only focus on the offence caused by being labelled a racist, rather than actually reflecting on the behaviour in question.
And should someone dare call out a racist encounter or an incidence of racial profiling, they're quickly told they're "the ones making it a race issue”.
It’s the kind of juvenile logic that doesn’t even cut it as a decent comeback in school playgrounds:
I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?
I know I love my country, as well as my Lebanese heritage, but I want a fairer, more cohesive society that isn't afraid of difference.
Australia, what do you want to be when you grow up?