Bruce Djite and Kyah Simon on racism in Australian football: 'We aren't immune to it'

It's hard to believe just 46 days have passed since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

His death sparked protests against police violence toward Black people and was the catalyst for increased global awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Black Lives Matter rapidly eclipsed the coronavirus updates as front-page news, and rallies were organised around the world with protesters gathering to demand justice for deaths in police custody.

Sporting bodies threw support behind the cause with athletes banding together to say "enough is enough."

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When the English Premier League returned to the field after a 100-day hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, the message was clear. A worldwide audience of millions tuned in and saw teams take a knee before kick-off, wearing shirts with Black Lives Matter replacing the names on each playing strip.

A powerful message, indeed, but what more can sport do to ensure the fight against racial inequality is not a fleeting headline that disappears once more into the minutiae of the 24-hour news cycle?

The gesture resonated strongly in Australia, but former Adelaide United star Bruce Djite, now director of football at the Reds, believes it will take more to instigate lasting changes.

"It will fade. In our news cycle things only stay relevant for a certain amount of time," Djite told ESPN. "Seeing what the Premier League did was powerful. These guys are heroes, but it's not enough for permanent change.

"If you've been racist for 20 years, then seeing these guys wear Black Lives Matter on their shirts and take a knee won't make you anti-racist, but it will get you thinking.

"It's sad that such a devastating event or sequence of events has to happen to get everyone to sit up and take notice of what surrounds them in their own communities. It's always been there. It's not like racism doesn't exist then suddenly does. Racism is always there, lurking in the background, at the backyard BBQ among friends and relatives, in boardrooms, in places where values and political ideas align.

"The rallies and protests are important for awareness. They bring attention and get people thinking, but to speed up the rate at which things change, real initiative needs to be taken."

Born in the United States, Djite, who is of Ivorian and Togolese descent, moved to Australia when he was 3 years old, and he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

"I know I'm in a position of relative privilege and have been my whole life," he said. "We chose to come to Australia. I grew up in a very good area and was well educated from early on. I was good at football, and as a kid when you are good at sport, that breaks down a lot of barriers. People are more than happy to accept you as one of them.

"That was my childhood, but it started to become more apparent to me that if you weren't good at sport, or excelling at something, then people start to pick on your colour."

While Djite excelled on the football pitch, he observed that sometimes even talent doesn't grant immunity from racism, and it has certainly been evident in the Australian A-League.

"We aren't immune to it. Jamie Young was called a 'monkey' by a fan in 2018, Paul Ifill, Ali Abbas have been racially abused," Djite said.

"We are seeing society handle it better now. People are called out on it. They might think it but don't say it -- the problem is they still think it.

"To change that, for example, in Australian sport, it's not just about saying we need to appoint an Indigenous CEO. We need everything -- Indigenous coaches, Indigenous referees, board members, administrators, players. It needs to be entrenched throughout the ecosystem."

Saying people aren't "born racist," Djite believes education is the key to ensuring the opportunity to implement real change is not lost.

"At school we didn't learn enough about Aboriginal culture," he said. "I literally heard about the Rainbow Serpent and Dreamtime but nothing on the atrocities -- maybe a little on the Stolen Generation -- but not enough about what defines Indigenous people."

Australia international Kyah Simon is an Indigenous woman whose mother is an Anaiwan woman, her father a Biripi man. Simon, the first Indigenous player, male or female, to score a goal for Australia at a World Cup, told ESPN that football had developed more opportunities to include Indigenous players.

"When I was young we really only had a few different distinct pathways." Simon said. "Now there's so many different pathways in terms of academies, club football, state representatives and other different programs."

She says the system isn't foolproof, however.

"The struggle is if players fall through the cracks," she said.

"I think there is opportunity [if] the likes of myself and Lydia Williams and other girls within the Matildas playing squad, if we were able to go out to some of those remote communities and be able to inspire those girls that football is an amazing game, it is the world game.

"If you can present that type of opportunity and show that Lydia and myself are living proof of going through the game, then I think that really becomes attractive to a lot of Indigenous youth around Australia."

Simon says she would like to explore opportunities to spread the word further.

"It's just a matter of finding the right ways to really tap into a lot of that raw talent that there is in Indigenous youth and show how they can get through the different stages of football and hopefully be wearing that green and gold one day," Simon said.

"I have a cousin, Dave Widders, [who] does a lot of stuff up north, and just speaking to him on a relatable level he's doing a lot of great stuff on ground.

"I guess there are a lot of people like that in the Indigenous space, locals that are really connecting with community and the mob in their area.

"They don't necessarily get the recognition for or the platform to display that so I guess that there's going to be -- and there should be -- better ways we can really encompass a lot of people's interests and ways in which we can get Indigenous kids into football.

To really change the future, Djite suggests going to the source.

"To answer: 'What happened to all our Indigenous players, where did they go, why did they leave the game?' do an audit," Djite said.

"To address the issue we need to ask those people where the gaps are and then work together to resolve those things.

"Find the people with context knowledge, with lived experience. Don't go to the guys with PhDs to write a good policy for us to implement, or an advisory committee with no skin in the game. Go straight to the source. It's not that hard."

We live in unusual times right now but have been presented with a unique opportunity to reset and recalibrate the way society thinks, in sport, in business and in life.

However, the bottom line in the fight against racism was perhaps best summed up by Djite's closing remarks on ABC's Q&A programme in June: "If we don't believe Black lives matter, if those three words don't sit comfortably with you ... that is the problem."