Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Straight-Line Stories: Representations and Indigenous Australian Identities in Sports Discourses

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Straight-Line Stories: Representations and Indigenous Australian Identities in Sports Discourses

Article excerpt

Abstract: There is an increasing body of literature, and awareness, of the nature of deficit discourse and its contribution to the essentialising of Indigenous identity. Through an analysis of sports writing since the 1960s, this paper explores how such discourses can develop.

Sport, however, has another attribute: it is the avenue by which Aborigines and Islanders have earned and demanded the respect of non-Aboriginal Australia; it has given them a sense of worth and pride, especially since they have had to overcome the twin burdens of racism and opposition on the field. It has shown Aborigines and Islanders that using their bodies is still the one and only way they can compete on equal terms with an often hostile, certainly indifferent, mainstream society (Tatz and Tatz 2000:33).

In the aftermath of civil rights victories, the politics of "victimhood" became the predominant methodology of black advocacy and the reigning paradigm of public policy thinking (Pearson 2007:26).


This paper is not a denial of the pervasive nature of racism. It is about how a particular discourse can become dominant in a discipline. The paper demonstrates how politics of recognition often leads to a restricted representation of Indigenous Australians--as discussed here, a representation, in particular, that foregrounds deficit and victimhood. Negotiating away from such a discourse is a complex process. In the politics of representing Indigenous identity it can be risky to allow the discussion to focus on anything other than the ideal of a 'fair go' for all Australians. So, it continues to be politically expedient to continue to use the language of victimhood, as Noel Pearson refers to in the quote above. I argue that there is a danger here in creating another stereotypically inferior identity by repeatedly considering this one aspect of Indigenous experience when there is much richer and greater experience to draw from. By reviewing the literature of Aborigines in sport (with reference to comparable writing from sports journalism), this paper demonstrates the presence of a pervasive discourse of deficit and victimhood and briefly considers why recognition of this discourse and developing ways to broaden it is of critical importance today.

A grievance narrative

Shields et al. (2005) define deficit thinking as a concept where a group of people are described and explained as deficient. Difference, in deficit thinking, is pathological and linked to power because it relates to what is considered normal (Shields et al. 2005). Gorringe et al. (2011:9) have termed the accumulation of deficit representations about Indigenous Australians a 'saturating narrative'. They note the difficulty in moving away from deficit discourse and argue that there is a need to replace negative representations with positive ones. Gorringe et al. (2011) reported on an AIATSIS workshop that was organised as a 'safe place' for Indigenous people to discuss ways of disengaging from the language of deficit. One participant at the workshop commented, '[I]t's amazing how quickly you can get white support if you kick black people' (Gorringe et al. 2011:11).

Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are two prominent Indigenous Australians who participate in the discussion of deficit and the politics of identity in Australia. Pearson writes that 'compelling parallels' exist between the experiences of black Americans and Indigenous Australians during the civil rights era. Speaking loudly and often against stereotypes of innate abilities while detailing examples of racism were important parts of the efforts to advance the legal rights of black people in America and Australia. However, in seeking to move on from this discourse, Pearson (2007:20) takes what he calls a 'compelling line' from African-American Booker T Washington to argue that black people should not 'permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities'. …

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