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Uncle Toms and Coconuts - racism in sport

By Stephen Hagan - posted Tuesday, 9 August 2005


If the shoe fits, wear it.

Just when you think the racial vilification laws in our national football codes are working effectively, along comes another racist outburst. South Sydney Rugby League Captain Bryan Fletcher’s recent racist verbal spray of “black c***” directed at popular Parramatta Indigenous back rower, Dean Widders, may have cost him his captaincy, a $10,000 fine and one-week suspension by his club. But will this penalty deter other sportspeople from involvement in future racist behaviour?

I think not.

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Racist and inappropriate language will continue to be condoned by non-Indigenous sportspeople as long as we have Uncle Toms and Coconuts in our midst.

The Uncle Tom caricature portrays black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. Uncle Tom, as with the Mammy caricature, was born in ante-bellum America to defend slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if black servants, males (toms) and females (mammies) were content, loyal servants? In his book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, Donald Bogle summarises the depiction of Toms in movies:

Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n'er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts.

The term “Coconuts” has its origins in the word Cocos from the Portuguese word ''macaco'', maybe derived from the fact that the nut has three germinating pores, which resemble a monkey face. The specific name comes from Latin and means nut-bearing.

The word "coconut", as defined by the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, is also used as derogatory slang, referring to a person of Latino descent who emulates a Caucasian (brown on the outside, white on the inside).

In my youth, Indigenous leaders used such words to describe members of their community who had assimilated too well with non-Indigenous folk, to the extent they were ashamed of their people. I remember seeing them at the annual show or festivals drinking and sharing racist jokes with their white buddies at the expense of Indigenous people.

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Unfortunately not a lot has changed in the past couple of decades since I was a kid. I see Indigenous people today stoop, with monotonous regularity, to even lower levels to appease white people.

Respected journalist and former international rugby union star Peter Fitzsimons, writing under the headline “No room for racists” in the Sydney Morning Herald  (9/7/ 2005), raised concerns about three former international Indigenous rugby league players and their take on the “Widders” incident:

Gee, really? Another line of defence has come from former league stars such as Colin Scott, Sam Backo and Tony Currie, who said that when they were playing they, too, were sledged for their Aboriginality, and yet their view was that they were happy to leave it on the field.

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Article edited by Rachel Ryan.
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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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