AFRICAN-AMERICAN civil rights activist Jesse Jackson once remarked: ‘‘There is nothing more painful to me than to walk down the street and hear footsteps, and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.’’ I was reminded of this one night as I arrived for my weekly game of social basketball. I am not ordinarily prone to pondering the adages of civil rights leaders at these games — although, that said, Martin Luther King’s assertion that ‘‘one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws’’ is often applicable to my attitude to the travel rule.
What caused me to so ponder on this occasion was the sight of this week’s opposition. The team consisted of young indigenous men, all tall and fit, standing in a group, a few of them bouncing balls. They glanced in our direction as my teammates and I walked into the gym, casting our less-thanthreatening shadow across the court. It pains me to admit it, but my first instinct was to feel threatened. My second instinct was to feel guilty about the former instinct. I felt guilty because I knew my unease stemmed not from the opposing team’s height or fitness but their race.
While I am no Jackson, I like to consider myself someone who goes out of his way to try to meet those outside my usual social circles. I have been a keen volunteer, helping at church soup kitchens, an immigration detention centre and an Aboriginal land rights organisation, among others. I thought these experiences, along with my own reflection, would remove any instinctive racism I might have possessed. Racism, I thought, was the preserve of rednecks, a disease suffered by people unlike me, who I didn’t know and who didn’t know any better. I didn’t enjoy suddenly being forced to question this comforting myth at my social basketball game.
Jackson was also made to question that myth. His words speak of a desperately tragic reality in the US: a long history of irrational prejudice against African-Americans has caused that prejudice to become, in some perverse, limited sense, rational, even for champions of African-American rights.
Calling my own fleeting racism in any sense rational would be over-generous. For a start, I was on a basketball court, not in a dark alley. Yet it is true that many years of irrational prejudice against Aborigines have left us with a society where Aboriginal people are disproportionately represented in crime statistics, and nonAboriginal people such as me almost never cross paths with Aborigines. These preconditions inevitably lead to a society where even those who presume to be above vices such as racism can discover we are mistaken. While I do think volunteering can help redress this tendency, there admittedly is a power imbalance inherent in any volunteering, which perhaps explains why my volunteering experiences didn’t stop me from feeling a moment of apprehension.
Predictably enough, my team was trounced by an embarrassing margin. The opposition maintained the highest standards of sportsmanship throughout. One player even took the unprecedented step of apologising for a wayward hand that hit my head. Aside from the usual slightly dented ego, I also took home from that night’s game the realisation that we ought never be too complacent about our own immunity to irrational prejudice.