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Sunday, April 14, 2024

How the Spener Leniu-Ezra Mam incident reignited Australia’s race culture war

The adolescent Bernard Tuaimau was amused by Jonah Takalua. As an Australian teenager of Samoan heritage, Tuaimau could relate to the fictional 14-year-old Tongan-Australian on his television screen being rebellious around the grounds of the made-up Summer Heights High.

“Watching that growing up, I thought that was quite funny,” says the mortgage broker from Mount Druitt. “A lot of characteristics that you saw in that Jonah character, I saw in myself.” Tuaimau’s lived experience at the time was of growing up in “a pretty insular sort of community in western Sydney” comprised predominantly of other Pacific Islands descendants. And with that came banter.

“We call it ‘mocking’,” Tuaimau says. “It was quite normal for us growing up to mock each other’s appearance, whether it be your height, your weight, or some part of your body that’s not perfect. That’s colour as well – if another brown person’s skin is slightly darker than ours, it is quite normal for us to refer to them as ‘darky’. But it’s obviously not racially loaded.

“When we speak to each other like that – when a brown person speaks to a brown person – we don’t have any intent on malice, nor do we understand the history or the background of what some of those words mean. But as I grew into my late 20s and had a family of my own, matured and became more worldly, now I find Jonah very offensive.”

Chris Lilley (centre) in Jonah from Tonga.

Chris Lilley (centre) in Jonah from Tonga.Credit: ABC

It isn’t the content, per se, of Chris Lilley’s mockumentary series Summer Heights High, and its spin-off Jonah from Tonga, that offends Tuaimau in adulthood. It is the knowledge that Pacific Islanders were so flagrantly stereotyped by an Anglo-Celtic comedian in brownface, and that felt as racist as if a real-life white Australian had called him a “darky”.

“Because if I’m young and saying it to someone growing up who’s also of Pacific Island descent, I know that that person has the same lived experience as I do,” he says, “in a playground setting or a home setting, with the same challenges that are part and parcel of the experiences that we have as Pacific Islanders.

“So for another Pacific Islander to call me a ‘coconut’, I wouldn’t take offence to that. Whereas if a non-Pacific Islander was to say that to me, I would definitely take offence. And it’s no different to the character of Jonah because we’ve got a Caucasian who didn’t grow up with our lived experience trying to tell our story.”

“For another Pacific Islander to call me a ‘coconut’, I wouldn’t take offence to that.”

Bernard Tuaimau

In other words, context can be everything. Sometimes it’s racist, sometimes it isn’t. Ultimately, the receiver decides which, depending on the ethnic and cultural background of the conveyor. It is an interesting exercise to overlay this concept of “mocking” onto the racism case that has polarised the NRL.

Sydney Roosters prop Spencer Leniu was this month banned for eight games for calling Brisbane’s Ezra Mam a “monkey” during the recent season-opener in Las Vegas. Mam, a Kuku Yalanji and Torres Strait Islander man, was so upset he was in tears in the sheds afterwards and filed a formal complaint. It is the longest suspension issued by the NRL for contrary conduct.

Spencer Leniu at the judiciary earlier this month.

Spencer Leniu at the judiciary earlier this month.Credit: Wolter Peeters

Leniu pleaded guilty but told his judiciary hearing he did not use the term as a racial slur, citing his mates with the “same skin tone” who, while growing up in Mt Druitt, referred to each other as “black c—” and “blacky”. He also said he had never taken offence at being called “monkey” and “coconut”. But the recipient in this instance did, which profoundly altered the texture of the interaction.

Tuaimau, a Pasifika community leader and co-recipient of Rugby Australia’s 2023 Nick Farr-Jones Spirit of Rugby Award for his work with Sydney Junior Rugby Union, does not personally know Leniu or his family. He can only assume what might have occurred based on what he has experienced and observed through a shared Samoan heritage and Mount Druitt upbringing: that what Leniu said to Mam was not OK, and that he must not have understood the depth of trauma experienced by Australia’s First Nations people. That perhaps he might also have incorrectly conflated Torres Strait Islanders with Pasifika Melanesians. That the whole situation is “very, very sad” for all parties, and “context and perceptions are a big thing”.

If the Leniu-Mam case is a window into the soul of modern Western society, then context and perception are inextricably linked to the words used within them. Australia is home to a diverse range of cultures, ethnicities, sexualities and genders. It is a rich tapestry superimposed onto decoloniality – a matrix of power created by the processes and aftermath of colonisation and settler-colonialism. In the words of Professor Jioji Ravulo, chair of social work and policy studies in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney: “Everybody, irrespective of skin colour, is pretty much f—ed over by colonialism.”

Because of this, Ravulo contends, “we learn to negotiate our understanding of the world based on those tropes and stereotypes, and so we subject each other to them – even people of colour”. This sort of tension is playing out in pockets all over Australia – and not just on the sporting field.

Brisbane five-eighth Ezra Mam.

Brisbane five-eighth Ezra Mam.Credit: AP

Dr Erik Denison, a behavioural scientist at Monash University, has spent years researching the prevalence of racist and homophobic slurs – particularly among young men – on sporting fields, and the inefficacy of education to stop the mindless use of derogatory terms. More recently, he wanted to see if other traditional male environments outside of sport compared, so went to live in a remote mine in Western Australia. “The findings were identical,” Denison says. “People are called monkeys non-stop. It’s not a rare event, and all the time among Samoans and Tongans and other people who are not white.”


The reclamation of derogatory terms can be seen all over the world. “Just listen to rap music,” says Karen Farquharson, professor of sociology and chair of the Anti-Racism Hallmark Research Initiative at the University of Melbourne. Black and brown artists have retaken the “n—–” slur in countless music and other popular culture examples.

In Australia, “wog” has been increasingly used by groups of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent as a term of affection among equals. But it can still be weaponised by people outside those subsets, depending on the identity and intent of the speaker and interpretation of the receiver.

The LGBTQ community, meanwhile have reclaimed “queer” and, to a lesser extent, “faggot”, while lesbian motorcycle club Dykes on Bikes has taken the sting out of another offensive term.

Social work academic Professor Jioji Ravulo.

Social work academic Professor Jioji Ravulo.

Gregory Coles, an American author and academic researcher on rhetorics of marginality, has described the reclamation of derogatory terms as “the exorcism of language”. His 2016 paper of the same name charts the complex and often ambiguous process of reclaiming words such as “black”, “queer”, “n–—” and “faggot”. He contends that, when victims lack the power to change dominant discourse and replace the oppressive terms altogether, they opt instead for “rescreening” the terms as a means of changing people’s attitudes towards them. The effect is “an adjustment not of what a word means but of what a word does”.

“I traditionally identify as bisexual, but now more I identify as queer,” says Ravulo. “But it’s interesting, I talked to my best mate and his partner – they both identify as gay – and I said to them, ‘is it appropriate for me, knowing where I position myself in my sexuality – I’m bi and not fully gay – to use that word?’ And they were like ‘actually, no’. I’m like ‘how interesting’, and I don’t use that word. I’ve been called that word growing up as well because I was relatively effeminate growing up.

“It opened up a lot of scars for our people.”

Johnathan Thurston

“It’s the way we classify what is appropriate and what’s not. It goes back to power and oppression, to power and privilege, to trauma and trauma responses, and to tropes and stereotypes we’ve all learnt and then used that can continue to perpetuate people’s marginality and lack of inclusion in society.”

The problem is that language is fluid and ever-evolving, and the meaning of words themselves are inherently unstable and prone to variations among different groups of people, depending on how those groups experience hearing or seeing them. Context always matters, but even context cannot cater for trauma – collective or individual.

Farquharson categorises some unintentionally racist language as “internalised racism”.

“We’re trying to reclaim the racialised terms and [you can] take away their power by using them yourself,” she says. “But actually, if somebody who’s experiencing racism thinks it’s racist, it is probably racist.”

The highly variable nature of generational and first-hand trauma may partly explain differing perceptions of the Leniu-Mam incident even within the First Nations community. Gunggari man and NRL great Johnathan Thurston said rugby league had failed Australia’s Indigenous community by being too lenient on Leniu, arguing he should have been given 12 weeks “for racial vilification on the field”.

Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell have been vocal supporters of Ezra Mam.

Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell have been vocal supporters of Ezra Mam.Credit: Sunny Brar/South Sydney Rabbitohs

“I was quite emotional talking about it,” Thurston said the day after the hearing. “It opened up a lot of scars for our people, and I know that Spencer’s come out, he’s owned it like he has, he’s apologised to Ezra, I understand he wants to have a face-to-face meeting with Ezra as well.

“I spoke to Ezra after the match to check on him, on his wellbeing. He was pretty shattered about it all. He’s got great family support around him, [and] there’s players around him as well. I thought, as the NRL, it was a great opportunity to make a statement – and I don’t think the eight weeks is sufficient.”

Latrell Mitchell, his South Sydney teammate Cody Walker and Mam’s Broncos teammates are among active Indigenous players to have publicly supported Mam on social media in the lead-up to the hearing. Mitchell has made several comments on the matter, including replying to a post suggesting an eight- to 12-week ban “and then some”, to the point of starting an online back and forth with Anthony Mundine, who believed Leniu’s remark was “not racism”. The Sharks star Nicho Hynes had also urged the NRL to “draw a line in the sand”.

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“It has to happen,” Hynes said. “Any person in the game, if they get racially vilified by a spectator, they’d want to go hard at them, so I feel like this all just has to happen to the player.

“It’s hard to comprehend what happened. I’ve reached out to Ezra and the Indigenous boys are all behind him. Back in the day, our elders did experience a hell of a lot of it and that’s the hardest thing now – that old trauma gets brought up and that’s what’s really upsetting.”

Ravulo agrees there are varying accounts and perspectives, both within the code and outside in the broader community. “What I find interesting though is, would the national conversation be different if a white Australian had said the racial term? Would they receive such a long suspension period? If it was a white person, do you think a lot of the conversation in Australia would’ve been to diminish the intention associated with the use of the word?

“Because I know in the past when we’ve seen other cases – we constantly see reports in the AFL – it’s almost like we [excuse] the spectator or person at the game because ‘they were just young’ or ‘they don’t know what they’re talking about’. We try and justify that use of the word towards that person in a way that discounts the responsibility of the word. But then in this instance, where it’s another person of colour, who’s Indigenous and Pacific, have they then become maligned and marginalised?”

The highest-profile case in the AFL was that of Adnyamathanha man and Sydney Swans champion Adam Goodes, who in 2013 was called an “ape” by a 13-year-old non-First Nations Collingwood supporter. He called it out but stressed she was young, a product of her environment and should not be blamed. The girl apologised personally to Goodes and explained she did not realise the word was racist.

Then, after more than two years of subsequent and relentless booing and attacks from various public figures and members of the media, Goodes took indefinite leave from the game. Some white people were somehow offended by his expressions of Indigeneity, including his war cry celebration against Carlton in 2015. They thought throwing an imaginary spear was a bit much (never mind that the “spear” was actually a boomerang).

But the culture wars really got going more recently, when Matildas captain Sam Kerr was charged with racially aggravated harassment of a British police officer by allegedly calling him “stupid” and “white”. Within hours, public and online debate assessed the viability or otherwise of “reverse racism” – whether Kerr, a gay woman with Indian heritage, could have negatively stereotyped or discriminated against the officer because of his whiteness.

Adam Goodes’ Indigenous war cry has been immortalised by the Sydney Swans in a statue.

Adam Goodes’ Indigenous war cry has been immortalised by the Sydney Swans in a statue.Credit: Sydney Swans Football Club; Supplied

The answer, according to Farquharson, is a simple “no”. “There’s a whole theory in sociology called colourblind racism,” Farquharson says, “which by sort of invoking colourblindness – if it’s racist to say something about a non-white person, it’s also racist to say it about a white person. That completely ignores the power dynamics of racism, which serve to keep people of colour subordinates to white people out of positions of power lower in the racial hierarchy.”

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Is this a case of non-marginalised majorities dictating what is OK and what is not?

The opening scene of Oscar-winning 2023 film American Fiction goes like this. Frustrated black novelist Monk is taking a university class and writes on the whiteboard a journal article title: The Artificial N—–, by Flannery O’Connor. A young white woman raises her hand. “I don’t have a thought on the reading,” she says. “I just think that that word on the board is wrong.”

Monk explains that this is a course on literature of the American South, which can include archaic thoughts and coarse language, and that they should be understood in context. The student is not appeased. “We shouldn’t have to stare at the N word all day,” she persists. “I just find that word really offensive.”

Monk loses it a bit then. “With all due respect, Brittany,” he says, “I got over it – I’m pretty sure you can too.”

The scene underscores the role of non-marginalised white people as the gatekeepers of racist definitions, creators of tired and offensive tropes and purveyors of tone-deaf sanctimony.

Jeffrey Wright plays disgruntled author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in a scene from American Fiction.

Jeffrey Wright plays disgruntled author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in a scene from American Fiction.

In the Leniu case, that may look like a white two-man judiciary panel deciding Leniu’s fate, and a code run by many (not all) white administrators. During the hearing, NRL counsel Lachlan Gyles kicked off proceedings by referring to Leniu as “Spencer Luai” and the Samoan international as “Tongan”.

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None of it sits well with Ravulo, who has been employed by the NRL over many years to assist players with mental health and wellbeing, run cultural awareness sessions, and counsel players sanctioned by the integrity unit for off-field discretions. He labels this division of power as “as very colonial, very paternalistic”.

Andre Afamasaga, a human rights and social cohesion advocate in New Zealand and Australia, believes the NRL’s eight-week ban is a “copy-and-paste charge that is proving inadequate for this complex race-based grievance”.

“An unintended consequence is the fraying of kinship bonds between the communities at the centre of this saga,” says Afamasaga. “Well-intended but uncreative responses from NRL stakeholders are damaging advancements made in their Indigenous and Pacific communities’ outreach. Indigenous athletes again feel singled out for speaking up.”

Tuaimau, meanwhile, is for the first time navigating the effects of racism with his six second-generation Samoan-Australian children.

“My second son’s first racial experience was on the sporting field,” Tuaimau says. “I won’t say what code he was playing, but he was called a ‘black c—’. My kids have played sport since they were in the under-sixes, but within our area. It wasn’t until we travelled to another area that it happened, and he asked me about it.

“He said ‘I didn’t realise I was dark’ – he is fairly light-skinned in comparison to where we grew up. And I had that conversation with my son at 13 years old, which was much younger than what I anticipated.”

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