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Why Nick Kyrgios stirs white anxieties

By Kim Huynh - 19 May 2016 34

Nick Kyrgios

After Olympic Head of Mission Kitty Chiller said that Nick Kyrgios ‘doesn’t really understand what it means to be an Australian Olympian’, the Canberran tennis hotshot turned to social media for guidance and support. Over 2,400 of his facebook friends offered mostly encouraging comments.

He also reposted a tweet in which he was told to “go home f#&king greek”. This message echoes Dawn Fraser’s call last year for Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic to “go back to where their parents came from”. Kyrgios has been quick to call out racism and express his love for his Malaysian and Greek roots along with his eagerness to play for Australia.

The brouhaha over whether Kyrgios belongs, reveals a good deal about the power and anxieties of contemporary Australian whiteness.

While we often hear about black, Asian, indigenous or hybrid identities, it’s harder to pin down what it means to be white. Moreover, unless you’re a white supremacist, discussing whiteness can be disconcerting because it raises questions about how white culture came to influence much of the world.

It’s the invisible nature of white identity that makes it so pervasive in terms of what Australians and other Anglo-centric countries consider to be fair and acceptable.

Sport can help us understand what it means to be white. In England, cricket and tennis are anchored in age-old white traditions that make for gentlemanly or sportsman-like conduct (gendered terms intended).

Iconic American sports are white in a more technocratic way. Strategic, equipment laden and high scoring sports like American football and baseball reflect an American view that overall, the team that invests the most in terms of money, effort, discipline and planning should win.

White sports emphasise orderly conduct and unambiguous outcomes.

Soccer is thus the world game in part because it’s not predominately white. The soccer aficionado accepts that the best team doesn’t always triumph, that there are plenty of draws and that most games are not action packed. In this way, soccer is a microcosm of real life.

It follows that taking your time to undo and do up your laces and thereby protecting your lead in the dying seconds of a match, screaming and clutching at your face after you’ve been hit on the leg or reminding an opponent of his partner’s sexual history – while by no means reputable – are acceptable and indeed can enhance the beauty of the game-as-life.

Of course few if any sports or indeed athletes are entirely white or non-white. We all take on varied identities. Kyrgios is in complex ways Canberran, Malaysian, Greek, young, seemingly middle class and heterosexual. However, one cannot fully comprehend the furore around him without considering how his blackness stirs white anxieties.

Kyrgios also illustrates how non-whites are as essential to some white sports in the same way that gladiators were essential to the Roman games.

Problems arise when black male athletes in particular challenge the rules, refuse to follow protocol and rattle the bars of their golden cages. They threaten patrons by doing a spear dance, raising a fist at a medal presentation or simply expressing a desire not to play.

Such racially defiant acts resonate powerfully in Australia because the sporting arena is a sacred place where boys become men, where we learn about sacrifice and fairness, and where we seek belonging and glory. Observant and respectful non-whites are welcome. However any deviant behaviour can turn the best and fairest non-white athlete into an ingrate, a sook, a hostile foreigner.

Nick Kyrgios may well need to have a good hard look at himself, but if we accept that Australia is a multicultural society then perhaps we should also examine Aussie whiteness.

Do you think Canberra’s Nick Kyrgios is a victim of racism? Should the furore over him be understood in racial terms? Are there white and non-white ways to play sport and live life?

Kim Huynh lectures international relations at the ANU. He has a pop politics segment on ABC 666 Breakfast and has recently published a (free) collection of novellas entitled Vietnam as if… Tales of youth, love and destiny (ANU Press).

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34 Responses to
Why Nick Kyrgios stirs white anxieties
farnarkler 10:03 pm 19 May 16

The lady doth protest too much, methinks. I don’t think people really comment about Nick Kyrgios’s ethnic background when it comes to them having a go at him. They just see someone who perhaps acts like a d$&!head and needs to stop acting like a child. I’ve never watched him, however, I get the impression he does a reasonable impression of John McEnroe.

Sport is a great equaliser amongst people, no matter what their ethnic background is. Why is it Eddie Betts and Cyril Rioli weren’t chastised as much as Adam Goodes? Simple, Eddie and Cyril didn’t act like d$&!heads. Not too many cared that all are indigenous.

dungfungus 9:58 pm 19 May 16

SeanP said :

HenryBG said :

In other words – and I think I am once again about to shock the post-modern relativists here, “white” is good, not bad as this article is faintly intimating.

When was the last time a white man won the 100m event?
When was the last time a person of African descent won an Olympic lifting event?

I’m not arguing that slow or fast twitch muscle fibres are better. But there could be other factors that influence which races do well at which sports.

“When was the last time a white man won the 100m event?”
I recall the last mens 100m Olympic sprint was won by a black guy named Usain Bolt but I can’t remember what country he represented and I’ll bet not many others can either.
As I said, it’s about people and not countries.

CaptainSpiff 6:57 pm 19 May 16

Funny how it’s the supposed non-racists (typically academics and lefties) who constantly see race everywhere they go, and who amazingly feel perfectly comfortable classifying everyone according to skin colour. White, whiteness, black, non-white spectrum? Really? Do you seriously not think there might be other more important factors at work here?

Time to get over your pet theories and start seeing individuals, rather than races.

Masquara 6:50 pm 19 May 16

The reaction to those two has had nothing to do with race and all to do with their behaviour. Decades ago, the non-white Evonne Goolagong was utterly embraced by crowds. Why? She didn’t bring her sport into disrepute. This article is an egregious (and profoundly racist) beatup.

Queanbeyanite 6:41 pm 19 May 16

“Kim Huynh lectures international relations at the ANU.”

Kim, there are racists in Australia but they are a very small minority, as your many commenters say above.

How about writing an article about who’s going to employ all the International Relations graduates.

Every second young woman in Canberra is studying IR and racking up a HECS debt someone else is going to have to pay off.

HiddenDragon 5:50 pm 19 May 16

It must be time for a(nother?) Canberra episode of Q&A.

Mike_Drop 5:30 pm 19 May 16

I guess when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail.

In this instance perhaps the OP may have focussed on issues of race before issues of sport and society. He has found instances of (possible) endemic racism where they may not be obvious to those who aren’t looking for it. I don’t think that the OP is Robinson Crusoe in this respect.

However, I’ll continue to cringe whenever a person posts an article where they stereotype white people or explain why white folks ought to carry a sense of guilt for issues and matters generally beyond their influence or control. Same reaction I have when The Telegraph blames the Muslim community for not doing enough to deter or denounce the actions of extremists.

I do, however, respectfully thank the OP for posting something interesting and controversial.

devils_advocate 4:15 pm 19 May 16

HenryBG said :

In other words – and I think I am once again about to shock the post-modern relativists here, “white” is good, not bad as this article is faintly intimating.

When was the last time a white man won the 100m event?
When was the last time a person of African descent won an Olympic lifting event?

I’m not arguing that slow or fast twitch muscle fibres are better. But there could be other factors that influence which races do well at which sports.

Maya123 3:05 pm 19 May 16

Kim Huynh wrote, “Observant and respectful non-whites are welcome.”
Yes, but so are observant and respectful persons of any race I would have thought.
I find it difficult to know how to respond to racist based articles such as the above. The author is contriving to be controversial by digging up racism, where there is no indication of it; complaining it is racist to say someone is badly behaved because their skin is a darker shade. A person should be able to be judged for their behaviour without the race-card being played. When the race-card is played, as here, the person playing it has the problem.

Mysteryman 1:29 pm 19 May 16

I love when non-white people pass judgement publicly on white people and white culture. Maybe one day we’ll have a country where white people can do the same to non-white people and culture/s without being ignorantly labelled as racist.

For the record, I think tennis is boring, but I don’t like arrogant and childish behaviour in any sport, regardless of the colour of the person committing it. If that means I’m “white” and I have “white values”, then I’ll gladly wear that.

dungfungus 1:14 pm 19 May 16

The days of athletes “playing for their country” went out the door when sport embraced professionals.
Today’s “sportspeople” do it for themselves only, selling their celebrity skills to the highest bidder.
Money has ruined sport and the Olympic Games have become a testing arena for the newest performance enhancing drugs.

HenryBG 1:01 pm 19 May 16

Sport is not a “microcosm of real life”, it’s a refuge for people who never managed to grow up and get a real job. As such it is pretty much an antithesis to real life. As for people who invest time on a daily basis into learning who these people are and what they do….well…’s just sad really…

As for,
“White sports emphasise orderly conduct and unambiguous outcomes.”
Well, gee whiz – white culture is about conduct and outcomes, hence its global reach despite white people representing no more than 15% of global population.
In other words – and I think I am once again about to shock the post-modern relativists here, “white” is good, not bad as this article is faintly intimating.

rommeldog56 12:52 pm 19 May 16

Why would this “stirs white anxieties”. These are in the minority – just appalling behaviors not supported or condoned by the vast majority.

However, the use in the OP title of :white anxieties” seems to me to be out of context to these very isolated instances – and not helpful.

Maya123 12:37 pm 19 May 16

I don’t follow sport, so I don’t know all that has gone on, but I doubt there is any racism involved; just bad behaviour.

Kim Huynh 10:51 am 19 May 16

Dear RiotACTers,

Allow me provide a pre-emptive response the following argument: ‘Many Australians criticise Bernard Tomic and criticised young Lleyton Hewitt in the same way that they criticise Kyrgios. It’s not about the colour of their skin, but rather the fact that they are acting like jerks.’

To an extent I would agree. My point however is that the standards of fair play and proper conduct in Australian sport and society are racialised. These standards apply to everyone, but are skewed towards whites and against non-whites. Because Tomic is of Balkan descent he sits further along the non-white spectrum compared to say, Hewitt.

On the way to winning the 2001 US Open, Hewitt demanded the removal of a black linesman who twice foot-faulted him. The twenty-year-old said to the umpire: ‘Look at him (the linesman) and tell me what the similarity is (gesturing towards Blake). I want him off the court, I’ve only been foot-faulted at one end. Look at what he’s done.’ While Hewitt was cleared of racism by the ITF, my view is that his comment deserved far greater coverage and scrutiny in Australia than anything that Kyrgios has said or done. And yet from memory, it wasn’t a big a deal.

For the record, I’m a big fan of Kyrgios, a pretty big fan of Hewitt and not much of a fan of Tomic, judgments made largely on the way they play tennis.

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