Brown poppy syndrome

In 2013, Adam Goodes, a now-retired indigenous AFL player was facing off against Collingwood at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Partway through the match, a 13-year-old girl screamed from the stands:


Goodes pointed her out to security, and told media, at a press conference afterwards:

“Racism has a face last night and, you know, it was a 13-year-old girl but it’s not her fault. She is 13, she is still so innocent. I don’t put any blame on her. Unfortunately, it is what she hears, the environment she has grown up in that has made her think it is OK to call people names. I can guarantee you right now she would have no idea how it makes anyone feel by calling them an ape.

I am loving the support of my friends and family and people in the social media. It is fantastic. But I think the people, the person that needs the most support right now is the little girl. People need to get around her. She is 13, she is uneducated. If she wants to pick up the phone and call me I will take that call and I’ll have a conversation with that girl about, you know what, you called me a name and this is how it made me feel.’’

The girl wrote a letter in response, after their phone call:

“Dear Adam. It was good to talk to you on the phone. I’m sorry for being racist. I didn’t mean any harm and now I’ll think twice before I speak”

Her mother was furious.

“Joanne told Fairfax Media that Goodes owes her daughter an apology for the “unfair” treatment she received from MCG security staff and police after calling the player an “ape””.

She wanted Goodes to apologise to the girl who’d called him an ape. The backlash against Goodes for having paused to alert security to the young girl was immense and stretched for many years after the incident.

Andrew Bolt (2015): It came from that incident. People saw that as a massive over reaction and also unfair to a girl 13, just out of primary school, and even when he knew her age he went ahead the next day with a press conference and called her the face of Australian racism.

Adam Goodes performing an Indigenous war dance in celebration of a goal – something which drew an angry response from right-wing commentators

I remember being utterly stunned by this cluster of overreactions, alongside a similar backlash when Adam Goodes performed an indigenous war dance in celebration of a goal.

Events like those above show us the roiling thundercloud of potential energy looking for an outlet. These are outrages that feel justified. The victim is an aggressor, and the aggressor is the victim. As Sean Kelly wrote ,

“By shifting the argument, away from Goodes and towards the 13-year-old, commentators achieve a subtle but powerful effect: suddenly, this is not about protecting Goodes from racism, but about protecting a 13-year-old girl from bullying. Once again, racism has been erased from the picture by a neat rhetorical trick”

This conduit for hatred, paired so perfectly with the righteous outrage from a baying mob screaming en masse, is a very specific and modern mode of hate in Australia. Leaders of these explosions of outrage, in media and politics, insist race isn’t a factor.

Spend a couple of seconds digging into what the people say, and you’ll find that that’s wrong.

When Adam Goodes was chosen as a brand ambassador for a department store, the response was swift:

A few months later, Adam Goodes guest-starred on Playschool, a children’s TV show in Australia that often features celebrities and sportspeople. The response was also swift:

Last year. Waleed Aly, the host of Channel Ten’s The Project (he’s Muslim) was up for a Gold Logie – with critics scrambling to output a collective scream of outrage at his nomination. The pattern was so similar. A stream of outrage so vastly disproportionate to the complaint, with such a sizeable trove of angry racist abuse feeding the machine.

“The fact that the first time there has been two non-white Gold Logie nominees, is the same time there has been actual, genuine outrage over the awards is not a coincidence”

Goodes and Aly share some similarities. They’re successful, they’re excellent communicators and they’ve used their success to talk about race, discrimination and social issues. They’ve both also been the path of least resistance for the pent up racist fury of a horde of white Australians.

They grow too tall, and speak too freely. This inspires a unique fury manifesting in a specific way.

This pattern didn’t stop in 2016.



ANZAC Day Outrage

On ANZAC day this year, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a young Australian Muslim mechanical engineer born in Sudan, posted a standard ‘lest we forget’ message, but appended the mention of some modern-day atrocities underneath the remembrance:

The post, before it was deleted.

After some angry comments, Yassmin amended the post and apologised:


Abdel-Magied, like Goodes and Aly, has been a target before, but her hastily-removed suggestion that modern atrocities be paid attention when remembering old ones was the path of least resistance for another lighting strike of outraged racism, like the response that struck at Goodes and Aly.

Government MPs, the acting Prime Minister and crossbench senators called for her to be fired from her part-time job hosting an ABC show. Pauline Hanson’s Facebook post inspired a flurry of comments calling for her to be “deported” (Abdel-Magied arrived in Australia when she was two):


The two petitions to have her sacked from the ABC featured more outright racism and abuse – I’ve uploaded them here but won’t include them in the post. They’re truly graphic. Some Facebook comments are here – they’re far worse (source).

At the time of writing, the ABC has stood by her – but there are renewed calls for her to be sacked from her role on a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) advisory board, and this morning the Australian is attacking her because she used a taxpayer-funded trip to talk about Australia instead of calling out abuse in the country she visited (imagine the headlines if she had spoken out about abuse).

It’s five days after the original post and the headlines are still coming thick and fast, paired so predictably with a stream of racist and abusive commentary on social media and the pages of the two petitions (Kyle Sandilands came out in support of her, which is nice).

An article written by Osman Faruqi for Junkee, critical of the backlash, was posted on the Facebook page of the Melbourne Immigration museum – a conservative think tank lashed them in the pages of the Herald Sun for sharing an article about the backlash:

This is hyper-sensitivity, but it’s an order of magnitude more intense than previous instances. It’s insane, but it gets worse.

Muslim MP Anne Aly was attacked on Facebook for failing to lay a wreath at an ANZAC day ceremony – hundreds of comments fell like a thick wave on her Facebook page. Turns out she was simply at another ceremony, laying a wreath there.

A Muslim MP is being attacked because she failed to exist in two different locations in the universe simultaneously. To say that this is an impossibly high standard is something of an understatement.

Anne Aly did nothing wrong, but was pilloried anyway. Abdel-Magied did nothing wrong either – that she deleted and apologised immediately should count for a lot with her critics. It doesn’t. The criterion for the energy and intensity of the outrage here is skin colour – the behaviour only serves as an initial trigger.

As was the case with Goodes and Waleed Aly, the captains of this hideous ship insist this is nothing to do with race, preferring to classify their outrage leadership as ‘criticism’:


Scott McIntyre, a white ex-SBS reporter, was sacked in 2015 for tweeting some contentious remarks on ANZAC day. This is regularly presented as proof that the backlash against Abdel-Magied isn’t racist.

This isn’t logical; though it’s fair to say being employed by a public broadcaster definitely draws a target on any written speech at any time of day. Abdel-Magied apologised and retracted her comments; McIntyre pointedly refused to take his tweets down. His tweets were also direct criticism of ANZAC day, listing atrocities in detail. He shouldn’t have been fired, but there are key differences between the two.

The other defence of the backlash is the truly weird concept that people who are paid through taxpayer’s money may never speak freely on social media at any point in their lives. When you accept a dollar from a job in government, you sign a mystical contract with every single Australian citizen to never utter a word that might grate on their sensibilities.

There’s some truth to this – the ABC does have a code of conduct for social media.

Weirdly, though, calls for sacking don’t apply to people on the public payroll all the time. In 2016, a collection of New South Wales police officers published racist abuse directed at a politician:

“Police personnel at Sydney City Local Area Command, Kings Cross, Bankstown, Cabramatta – and even within senior management – have been implicated in an extraordinary attack on the Greens member for Newtown, Jenny Leong. The MP has been devastated by a string of Facebook posts that mocked her ethnic background and referred to her father as a “swamp monkey”” 

The consequence? One officer of the group was “suspended”. One full year later, no charges have been laid, and there’s no word on whether the people publishing racist abuse on Facebook are still serving in the NSW police force.

These people didn’t get four days of rolling coverage or petitions filled with thousands of racially abusive comments. This isn’t just about ‘taxpayer’s money’, nor is it just about the crime of trying to draw some lessons from the memories brought up on ANZAC day.



No platform for immigrants

Some consistences emerge from these instances:

  • A sizzling, white-hot outrage disproportionate to the original act (Goodes must apologise for pointing out his abuse; Anne Aly should be ashamed because she obeyed the physical laws of the universe);


  • Leaders that insist the movement isn’t racist, whilst a stream of insanely racist abuse flies past, just behind their head (see: a Twitter feed listing real Andrew Bolt blog comments; his colleague thought it was a parody);


  • Signals to the mob from those leaders. A government MP has called for Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s ‘self-deportation‘, Hanson accused the ABC of ‘tokenism’, a News Corp columnist says “We, as taxpayers, should not be forking out for the salary of someone who she says is ‘first and foremost a Muslim'”, and Sky News aired these comments: “It wasn’t ignorant, she was just being a bitch…Lest We Forget Yassmin, that you are brown, you are Muslim and you are a girl and it’s the only reason you have a job at the ABC”.


This is the right-wing analogue of a left-wing concept: that the purveyors of harmful ideas should be denied a platform through collective action. It’s called ‘no-platforming’. In Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s case, the ‘harmful ideas’ marked for erasure through social and media pressure are:

  • that we remember modern suffering when commemorating old suffering,
  • that an immigrant can be a confident participant in public debate,
  • that a Muslim woman can wear her culture and identity with pride and,
  • that employees at the ABC think thoughts and says words in support of the culture, religion or identity they hold dear.



(By now, you should be unsurprised that someone who regularly cited ‘freedom of speech’ in policy decisions is advocating for policing thought)

This is no-platforming, but instead of ‘don’t let this rape-advocate into our country’, it’s ‘deport immigrants who don’t know their place’. Shouting down ideas that damage cultural homogeneity, rather than shouting down ideas that cause harm.

This is no-platforming driven by a desperate and powerful desire for racism as a social force – brown poppy syndrome, to lop off anyone committing the crime of publicly challenging racism whilst having dark skin. It’s more than resentment or envy. It’s raw hatred.

As Waleed Aly said on Offsiders (it’s worth watching the full clip):

“…it’s about the fact that Australia is generally a very tolerant society until its minorities demonstrate that they don’t know their place. And at that moment, the minute someone in a minority position acts as though they’re not a mere supplicant, then we lose our minds. And we say, ‘No, no, you’ve got to get back in your box here”.





The human cost of this tragic habit is profound and immediate, and by definition it happens to kindest and least-deserving of subjects. The endless stream of violent and abusive comments, after the bat-signal from media outlets shines onto the clouds, is something that harms people, and never leaves them. These scars are forever.

Stan Grant said, of Adam Goodes,

“Regardless of what the motive is, you may not like him as a footballer, you may not like the colour of his skin, that’s your prerogative, but if someone says, ‘that hurts me, you’re upsetting me, you’re humiliating me,’ a civilised people and a civilised society stop”

The past four days have been anything but civilised, and there’s zero chance it’ll stop over this weekend, or perhaps even for the length of another week. We have developed a seriously ugly habit over the past few years – smart, beautiful and accomplished young Australians like Adam Goodes, Waleed Aly, Anne Aly and Yassmin Abdel-Magied find themselves targeted by stratospheric levels of exaggerated, lingering and unfair outrage. Media outlets shine the signal and a swarm of social media threats and abuse land at their feet.

The charges against them are vague but held with searing passion. There is nothing they can do to avoid these immensely cruel campaigns.

Can it be stopped? There’s no appetite to admit the brutality and ugliness of these manifestations of racist anxiety. Through the setting of an unattainable standard of behaviour, dark-skinned immigrants and Aboriginal Australians can only avoid the mass-emotional-short-circuit of brown poppy syndrome by assuming a position of eternal mediocrity and total silence.

Silencing dark-skinned Australians isn’t a great outcome; a better way forward might be to ditch the brutality and let Australians do their thing, unimpeded by the outrage their skin has inspired.



Header image – Nicky Winmar points at his skin in 1993, in an iconic retort to racist taunts from the stands. The Collingwood president responded with “‘As long as they [Aborigines] conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect them”. In 1999, Sam Newman, an Australian TV host, wore blackface to impersonate Winmar as revenge for cancelling an appearance on the show. 

The Age reported that “Winmar said he did it on a whim after noticing that one supporter who had been delivering slurs had a young child next to him who was being exposed to his behaviour and attitude”

  1. I’m an old white Catholic guy. It saddens me to see this stream of abuse directed at people this way. I wish I had half the intellectual strength of Waleed, the athleticism of Adam, the bright, intelligent persona of Yasmin or the commitment of Anne Aly.
    May they long continue in our public discourse and di it without having to put up with dumb racism.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. We should start castigating the malevolent politicians who feed on popular prejudices (Yeah, you Abbott). But ,as we all know, the media are just there to make money by stirring shit, and they just don’t care who’s lives they ruin, or who’s reputation they destroy. Arseholes.


  3. On Anzac Day I woke early and was reflecting on the significance of the day, my heart ached for those men and women whom I did not know who lost their lives in war, not only of the Sustralian people but all people.
    I also shed a tear for the people all over the world that are in the grips of war still, and all the people who have lost their homes and are not been shown compassion and understanding in their plight to resettle in another country. I did not find Yasmin’s post offensive, in my opinion she stated exactly what I was thinking, it was not insulting to say that Lest we forget, and then mention others that are still suffering and to not forget them. It is politicans and supposed leaders that are drunk on greed and ego, that so many innocent people over the centuries are plunged into these wars. This is a good piece and more people should feel comfortable enough to come to the defence of a balanced view, without being attacked on social media and other platforms.


  4. ‘Brown poppy syndrome’ – that’s the perfect way of describing it! I suppose public discourse in this country has been the domain of white ppl for such a long time that said white people are now freaking out.
    Good. Let’s hope this episode inspires more and more non-white people to speak freely and take no bullshit.


  5. Yet again another half wit who completely missed the point. I suppose you had to write some rubbish to justify your salary but, learn something about the people of Australia before you slather us with this crap.


  6. It’s no surprise, what else would you expect from this conglomeration of white mostly male right wing red neck retards, it’s in their DNA, when Murdoch dies which will hopefully be soon we as a nation can only hope his sons operate his organisation differently to the way his rags report news at the moment, Rupert has always followed the adage of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story and his masthead The Australian and that other rag The Telegraph have followed his orders to the letter!


  7. It’s no surprise, what else would you expect from this conglomeration of white mostly male right wing red neck retards, it’s in their DNA, when Murdoch dies which will be hopefully soon we as a nation can only hope his sons operate his organisation differently to the way his rags report news at the moment, Rupert has always followed the adage of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story and his masthead The Australian and that other rag The Telegraph have followed his orders to the letter!


  8. So sad that minorities are not aloud to speak up without being squashed and “put in their place” by shock jocks, ignorant bastards and right wing politicians. Disgusting! It makes me ashamed to be Australian and WHITE!!


  9. Thank you for spreading the truth. It saddens me that coloured Australians are not allowed their voice to be heard. And yes, Lest we forget the atrocities of WW1 and the atrocities of Manus Nauru Christmas Island. In fact human atrocities sadly are alive and well all over the world today.


  10. a wonderful, well-written article. So many areas that I want to comment on. If Yassmin Abdel-Magied had said ‘let us not forget those on Manus….etc. at another time’ I wonder if it would have made a difference?? Those hypocrites who use the phrase Lest we Forget once a year when they can be bothered attending a service are probably the ones jumping up and down about it. I notice MP Anne Aly is usually referred to as Muslim MP….. Would anyone even notice if ‘another’ i.e. white-faced Australian MP did not attend a service?? Hypocrisy and racism is what it is about.
    “Our true nationality is mankind.”
    ― H.G. Wells

    Liked by 1 person

  11. We are so fortunate in this country. We have so much diversity, so many brilliant people, actors, writers, artists, sportsmen and woman, scientists, journalists, academics, entrepreneurs, business women and men, public servants, chefs, farmers etc, etc, etc. We all originally come from elsewhere, we all bleed the same way. Why can’t we respect and care for each other? It is not all perfect, but we really are lucky to live in Australia, and with greater respect and care for each other things will truly get better.


  12. Great article, and mostly great comments. I too, often feel ashamed at being a white Aussie when ignorant racists rant and rave.
    what have they contributed to this great country? Hopefully things will change eventually. The media has a lot to answer for stirring up these issues.


  13. There’s absolutely no room for name calling or discriminations based on people’s race or physical appearance and sometimes circumstances in life – especially those not of their own making.
    Where civil debate in Aus has greatest difficulty is separating ‘race’ from ideas, and indigenous and multiculturalism from our historico-legal reality.
    Is our position in Australia the ‘sum of the success’ of western liberal ideologies within a Judeo-Christian reality?
    And if that proposition is real and worth preserving (NB: Paul Kelly’s article in ‘The Australian’ 15/4/17) then we need to be realise that between the old and new influences, what areas of common ground exist and need to be perpetuated?
    “White” people – as westerners are usually collectively referred to – are fearful not only of Islam (radical or not, but there is only one reality) but also feel marginalised by secularists, and as both of those groups fight for more of their ‘minority’ views (I am awaiting a term for the combined Islamic Gender Fluidity Paradigm – there’s more to the Green flag alliances than meets the eye??) the white marginalised are actually sensing a loss of identity and purpose. (After all, mad dogs and Englishmen in the midday sun were bringing a better life…”What did the Roman’s do for us…”)
    So, brown, tall or narcotic, all types of poppies are assessed against the rule of law: and it generally bends in favour of those pushing the envelope as demonstrated by the ironic situation where a lawful Church procession in Sydney, in favour of life issues as protected by current laws, then saw Green, Emily’s list and Uni SRC protesters unlawfully disrupt a Church service, unlawfully trespass, unlawfully assemble, unlawfully reassemble and not once challenged or moved on, but, the lawfully approved gathering redirected away from their approved place by the Police.
    Yes, the rule of law…hear! hear!


  14. Thanks for this post. Waleed Ali is extremely articulate.

    One thing that concerns me though is that this post draws our attention to people’s trolling. Many of those people will be genuine racists, others will be actively trolling, not really expressing their actual views but joining in the ‘fun’.

    Now I’m not really arguing that such people are marginal. There is enough antipathy to shut Goodes down which was horrible to behold. But often the group of people who would contemplate the horrible things you’ve identified above – facebook comments etc – is pretty small. One could identify similarly hateful comments about any number of groups – I can think of Jews for instance – when a problem exists, but it’s pretty minor. (I’m not saying this here necessarily.)

    So it’s both amplifying their influence and perhaps not confronting the views of larger groups – who I doubt express themselves in the ways you’ve quoted as a rule, or even think that, but nevertheless are well described by Waleed Ali’s comments.


    1. Thanks for the comment – I think this is a really fair criticism; and perhaps why a lot of people read this and felt kind of shitty about the state of affairs. I definitely wouldn’t say that the bulk of people writing responses to this on public forums like social media and were, in the majority, publishing racist abuse. It’s definitely <15%, at a rough guess.

      But the point is more to say that that 15% wouldn't have much to go off, had the initial outrage not been started by media outlets etc. It's not an easy thing to demonstrate with data, but I'd also posit that the majority of respondents who don't explicitly state anything about race are, to some degree, treating this situation differently due to the characteristics of the person they're taking issue with. Again – not an easy thing to demonstrate, but something that comes out when you compare it to other, similar circumstances (eg the police officers mentioned above).

      So yeah – even though they're not the majority, their existence is still significant – significant enough that they tend to have an impact on the subjects of these campaigns disproportionate to their number or representation. That's kind of the consequence of abuse, really.

      I reckon a good way to study this empirically would be to extract all the sigs from the petition and see what issues are expressed in each one with a coding process. I don't have the time or the technical know-how, but perhaps someone does!

      Cheers for the comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I can imagine 15% of people booing Adam Goodes – perhaps more than that in a footy crowd. But I’d be surprised if the number of people who really believe some of those horrible trolling comments is more than 1-2%. No real evidence for that – perhaps I’m naïve – but that’s my thinking for what it’s worth.

    When you blame ‘the media’ the thing is it’s some extremely unpleasant people in the media and proprietors who are unpleasant themselves or see an opportunity to profit from it. It’s a very unfortunate development. I have no idea what can be done about it.

    You may be interested in a couple of blog posts of my own on the issue (though part two will be much more confronting – you may disagree with it – but it’s not written 😦


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