The White Man In That Photo
I recently came across an article that connected deeply with me.
It’s about this iconic photo from the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. It depicts a powerful historic moment; Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos’s highly symbolic black power gesture, captured while the US national anthem played during the medal ceremony for the 200 metres.
It was the year of the death of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and widespread protests in the USA against racism. Smith and Carlos each wore a black glove, the symbol of the Black Panther’s cause and were shoeless, wearing black socks to represent black poverty. But while much has been shared about the two American athletes, most of us know nothing about the third man. The white man in the photo.
He is Australian Peter Norman and his actions that day and beyond that day are something that I believe every Australian should know about.
Peter Norman won the silver medal in the 200 metres that day. In a final that was expected to be decided between the two Americans, Norman ran the race of a lifetime at 20.06 seconds, an Australian record. Tommie Smith beat him with a new world record at 19.83 seconds.
But it was what happened later on the podium that etched the two Americans into history. Smith and Carlos decided they wanted to show the entire world what their fight for human rights looked like. They told Norman – a white man from a country that itself had only two years before dismantled the White Australia policy - what they planned to do on the podium. Norman supported them, wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights Badge to show his support for their stand.
The two Americans had asked Norman if he believed in human rights. Norman said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and he, who had been in the Salvation Army,said he believed strongly in God. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said “I’ll stand with you” – remembers John Carlos – “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”
All three athletes were later criticised and penalised heavily for their actions.
In Norman’s case according to the story, he and his family were ostracised and he had trouble getting work, even as the reigning 200 metre Olympic silver medallist and Australian record holder (a record he still holds today)!
Then despite having run qualifying times for the 200 metres thirteen times and the 100 metres five times, he did not make the 1972 Olympic team.
According to John Carlos, “If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.” For years Norman had only one chance to save himself: he was invited to condemn his co-athletes’ gesture in exchange for a pardon from the system that ostracised him.
A pardon would have allowed him to find a stable job through the Australian Olympic Committee and be part of the organisation of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Norman never gave in and never condemned the choice of the two Americans.
Despite being one of the greatest Australian sprinters in history, Peter Norman wasn’t even invited to the Sydney Olympics. He died in 2006. At his funeral Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Norman’s friends since that moment in 1968, were his pallbearers, sending him off as a hero.
What connected me so deeply with this story today, is because Peter Norman made a stand for something he believed in, despite the personal cost to himself.
His stand marked him as an anti-racist. Not to be confused with being a “non-racist”.
There’s a big difference.
A non-racist believes that by simply not being racist, they are doing enough. However, when you are anti-racist, you acknowledge that it is your responsibility to speak up and stand with those being unfairly persecuted.
Today we face the reality that we have a deeply unfair, unequal society. In the face of this, we all have a choice. To be non-racist or anti-racist.
I choose to be anti-racist. I invite you to make a choice.
We can be anti-racist as individuals.
We can be anti-racist as businesses.
We can be anti-racist as brands.
To those commentators that criticise people, businesses and brands “jumping on the #blacklivesmatter bandwagon”, I respectfully suggest your perspective might come from a place of white privilege. It is 2020 and the world HAS to change. Australia HAS to change. Brands have enormous influence to be part of creating that change.
To do nothing is as much a choice as doing something.
Making a stand publicly has to be just the beginning. Brands and businesses that do so MUST back it up with action, starting with their own organisations.
Here are some businesses and brands that are taking an anti-racist stand.
Long outspoken on the topic, Nike recently released a video campaign asking viewers to not pretend that there isn’t a problem in the United States. The athletic apparel brand has also pledged for $40 million to be directed towards supporting social justice organisations related to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Despite being a major competitor, Adidas used their platform to share Nike’s message and video campaign, standing in solidarity. More recently, Adidas North America has committed to investing $120 million in black communities over the next four years and to fill 30% of its current job openings with a person of colour. This followed a series of tweets stating, it was "time to own up to our silence"
Procter and Gamble is using their platform to ask white people to “use their power” and stand up against racism through their latest video campaign. P&G’s chief communications officer, Damon Jones, notes that 'the ad is both an invitation and a challenge to white people to do more when it comes to anti-racism, hoping to inspire the silent majority to not only serve as allies but as advocates and activists in the fight for equality.'
You can also see here some of the other actions P&G are taking to address racial inequality including within their own walls.
BEN & JERRY'S
Activist ice-cream brand, Ben and Jerry's in the USA released a strong statement of outrage at police brutality, publicly supporting the #blacklivesmatter movement and calling for four key actions from government to dismantle white supremacy.
Businesses and brands alike are stepping into the leadership void that governments have created.
There is no doubt that there are deep problems in our societies that need solutions. Business and brands have the influence and power to create much-needed change.
Is your business part of this important movement?
P.S. In 2012 the Australian Parliament finally approved a motion to formally apologise to Peter Norman and rewrite him into history with this statement:
This House “recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 meters sprint running event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record”.
“Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the ‘black power’ salute”.
“Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality”.
However, perhaps, the words that remind us best of Peter Norman are simply his own words when describing the reasons for his gesture, in the documentary film “Salute,” written, directed and produced by his nephew Matt.
“I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man.
There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything for from where I was, but I certainly hated it.
It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it”.