Razer: Rob Thomas, racist jokes, and how to apologise like you mean it

Man, Rob Thomas. There’s a blast from a baby-blue past. One would have thought the appeal of an oeuvre that suggests the sound a chambray shirt might emit if overwhelmed with Cuddly fabric softener had washed away. Not so. The guy who makes Dave Matthews sound like Stockhausen is still around and still offering large crowds his constipated account of the emotions American bros are wont to feel rather late at night.

On Saturday night at Melbourne’s Rod Laver arena, the Matchbox 20 frontman bore out the botched priorities of Australia’s border control and was permitted to publicly sing such hits as I Feel Things Very Deeply But In A Totally Heterosexual Way and This is the Sound the Hegemon Makes. If this news were not bad enough, apparently, he engaged in “banter” with his audience of devout clonazepam fans as well.

Perhaps you have heard that Thomas made an appalling “joke” to match his appalling noises. I would be surprised if you had not as the incident was very widely reported and is just the sort of toilet paper scrap that sticks to one’s heel of consciousness notwithstanding all efforts to loose it. Thomas has attempted to explain the “joke” in which he characterised himself as drinking to the point where he was sufficiently drunk to feel like a “Black Australian” twice now on Facebook. What he hasn’t really done, though, is apologise.

Look. I’m hardly the sort to demand acts of public redemption. I admire, for example, the fuck out of Charlie Sheen for his ongoing refusal to take the prong of regret between his lips and tell us all that he is so, so sorry when he is plainly still enjoying the ’90s and is really not sorry at all. However, if Charlie had stood on stolen land and rubbished, intentionally or not, its comprehensively ripped-off custodians, even I would expect remorse.

Thomas has not provided this, to date. While it may be true that his remarks did not have a racist basis, it is also true that one must be contrite without question when one has fucked up abroad. At 18, I wore a halter top into Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque. I wish I could tell you that I did not try to argue with the caretaker that I was an honoured guest of Abraham and should be welcomed, as per the instructions of the Quran, to ponce about in a handkerchief if I wished. I cannot. But, I can say that I eventually learned that when the expatriate is said by her hosts to be in error, then, she is in error.

If you happen to get your tits out in a mosque, you cover up and apologise. And, if you happen to ram into a delicate national issue hitherto unknown to you, you do the same.

But, Thomas remains chiefly concerned not that he has offended his hosts but that his hosts have misinterpreted his intention. As is the case with many celebrity apologies, the apologist is only sorry that he has been misunderstood.

Let’s allow that Thomas has been misunderstood. Actually, if one looks at the TMZ footage of the “joke”, it seems that this was the case. The “joke” does not have, as suggested by multiple news outlets, “Black Australians” as its punchline, but clumsily proceeds elsewhere. One could go on about how these same news organisations who are currently remonstrating Thomas have themselves for many years uncritically supported the racist “they can’t handle their drink” myth (yes, it’s a fucking myth) to the point they permitted the NT Intervention. I lost count of the Sunday colour supplement stories telling soft liberal lies about the rivers of grog. But, all of this is by the by and does not change the fact that whether he intended to give offence or no, the guy from Matchbox 20 should probably get this sorry thing right for several reasons.

First, as mentioned, he’s a guest and guests must behave. Second, he is either disingenuous or a monumental dill to think that Australia’s were the only colonists in all history that had elevated an indigenous population to such a position of cultural and material primacy that it was totes cool to reference this divide freely. I mean, what sort of imported white dick just lets loose with the racialised funnies in Johannesburg? Third, if you’re going to apologise, you apologise and you don’t just whine that you’ve been misunderstood.

I’m sure the chap feels awful. I am prepared to believe that he has examined his intentions — unlike the many media outlets who have told lies for decades about indigenous Australia — and found them pure. I am also going to suggest that Rob Thomas, of all people, is now in the middle of an interesting opportunity to really examine the democratic potential of a public apology. One that does not, as I believe that more official “Sorry” did, mythologise the kindness of the white apologist, but one that really does force white Australia to examine its regret.

Thomas could contact one of scores of indigenous thinkers and leaders and humbly ask for some good advice on this score. The remainder of his tour on Aboriginal land could be given over to some deep thought on the matter of colonisation. Or, he could keep saying that he has been misunderstood by a nation as though she is some heartless beauty in a Matchbox 20 song.

If he chooses to do something a little more courageous, though, we must all be prepared in future to think of him more kindly than we would of Nickelback.

13 responses to “Razer: Rob Thomas, racist jokes, and how to apologise like you mean it

  1. I understand that apologies in the form of “if I have offended/been misunderstood then I apologise” are complete bullshit, but I really don’t think that’s whats happening here.

    Thomas has acknowledged he “fucked up” – “… I said something that is racist and insensitive” – and has acknowledged his ignorance – “… I am incredibly embarrassed by my ignorance.” He has expressed regret – “… sat in my room and I cried when I found out” and “sitting here in my hotel room completely gutted that a joke that I made was much more relevant to the times in Australia than I realized.” He has committed to making amends – “… going to use this opportunity to rectify that [his ignorance]. I promise you this!” He has apologised explicitly – “I feel like a fool and apologise to all Australians and “… but to those I offended, I deeply, DEEPLY apologize!”

    I haven’t seen where Thomas talks about his “audience’s misunderstanding” but I do notice he keeps reiterating his ignorance. I don’t think, however, that this necessarily means he’s making a bullshit apology. Given that he states that for the “past 20 years I have been a fervent supporter of civil rights”, it’s possible that he is regretting not only the offence he has caused but also his ignorance – “… I’m embarrassed I don’t know more about the history and the culture” and “… completely gutted that a joke that I made was much more relevant to the times in Australia than I realized.” He may not be minimising of his fuck-up, he might be acknowledging and lamenting its cause.

    It also looks like he’s engaging in a bit of “impression management” which is possibly clouding the issue, too. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. We all do it and who wants to create the impression of being an ignorant racist when they are not? He was the lead singer of Matchbox 20; FFS his “impressions” are going to need some managing:-)

  2. I reckon he’s Trumping, saying shit that gets free media attention. Anyway I thought the singer from matchbox 20 was Uncle Kracker , who knew.

  3. Can we just stop looking at celebrities and sportspeople for moral guidance? A basketballer blackfaces in one of the worse Kanye costumes I’ve ever seen. A late 90s alt-rocker says something racially offensive during an otherwise unremarkable tour. As you’ve pointed out, Helen, the real folly here is the stupidity of a) engaging in the behaviour and b) not bothering to find out why its offensive in the first place when faux-pologising.

    And newsflash to the Rob Thomas fans who’ve ripped into Helen (largely to defend his music and what a ‘genuinely nice guy’ he is – which are words I would normally reserve for people I’ve actually met and spent a lot of time with): you can be a nice guy and say stupid, unintentionally racist things. Intent is irrelevant to whether you’ve been racist. So says our Race Discrimination Act and Equal Opportunity Acts around the country. Its about how the person with the attribute (in this case, Aboriginal Australians) perceives it. Not you as a lover of Rob Thomas and his music.

  4. There’s really nothing for him to apologise for, some may have misunderstood a joke because apparently you say the word black and you’re “racist”
    He was basically saying he drinks himself stupid to deal with long flights, then thinks he’s something he’s not.
    Fact is there ARE black Australians. There are white Australians too.
    People need to lighten up a little. He’s the least racist musician out there and if you knew anything about him rather then just bash him and his music you’d know that too.

    1. Woah, Linda STOP RIGHT NOW – your explanation is really twisted and weird. Have you spent any time in the Northern Territory? Do you know the plight of our Black Brother’s?

      ps Matchbox 20 were a boring MOR band

  5. Um, are you blind? He has OVER-apologised above and beyond. He hasn’t explained himself, but he has apologised, twice. Perhaps you may want to read this, and get a prick of conscience and apologise for your lies in here. http://ondusk.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/smooth.html?spref=tw Because you are way out of line, and your article is very racist, if I may say so.
    Read his apology. He apologised before the media even KNEW about the story, and his apology was lengthy and heartfelt. Get your facts straight. He is well-known for being a civil rights activist for African-Americans and Native Americans. Perhaps you should open your mind and heart and realise he is a genuinely decent man who made a simple mistake. INTENT is important. Look at the body of his work for African-Americans and Native-Americans, alone, and take that into context. You are not helping race relations by closing your mind and heart and therefore closing dialogue. Because that just makes people feel resentful that they have to walk on egg-shells and it is all one way. It should be a two-way street and you should stop and reflect on what this fantastic man does for minorities in his own country, and think that you just might be wrong in your judgement of him. When you yourself have personally done even 2% of what he has achieved for First Nation Peoples, THEN you can talk. Until then, as most have said, he has apologised genuinely, in a truly heartfelt manner and apologised too much. What do you want; blood? The worst thing is, you can tell he is really hurting, and he is the last person who deserves these attacks and abuse. There are true racists out there who seriously insult our people, and don’t even half-apologise, let alone apologise to such obsessive extremes as he has. Concentrate on true racism, rather than going after someone who has done more for First Nation Peoples than a small-minded vicious pitchfork-wielding ignorant person like you could ever do. Shame on you!

    1. Hi, Sally. To address your first query, yes, I am blind. I have less than 10% vision and things have been so in the ocular department since birth.
      To address your second charge, I did read Thomas’ apologies. They are linked within the text and I would have been a bit of a nuff-nuff to write a piece without looking at the source material. I believe that Thomas did not apologise. He merely showed regret that he had been misinterpreted. And, yes, I understand that he had been misinterpreted, which is why I linked to the TMZ footage which is the only recording that shows that “Black Australians” is not the punchline to the joke. As I mentioned in the piece. This is what I wrote “Actually, if one looks at the TMZ footage of the “joke”, it seems that this was the case. The “joke” does not have, as suggested by multiple news outlets, “Black Australians” as its punchline, but clumsily proceeds elsewhere.”
      I was making the case that apologies, if they are to be made at all, should be made. I have no reason to doubt that Thomas is the valiant defender of justice that you say he is. I do not doubt that he was misinterpreted. Which is why I said this. But that Thomas had elected to apologise for nothing but his audience’s misunderstanding makes me wonder why he apologised at all. Whatever his intentions, and whatever his good feelings about race, he still made the peculiar point that for him to be “Black Australian” was even more distant from what he actually was than in being “Australian”, although not so alien as being a “pretty little girl”. And you can go on and on about what a nice chap he is, but the joke was crass and it was uttered on Aboriginal land.
      SO, he can be genuinely sorry or he can be sorry, as he has been, only to the degree that we don’t all understand that he is not a racist. I am sure he is not. But white people being very eager to show that they are not racist is tiring all ‘round and no great help to the actual end of racism. Which is why I shan’t bother answering your other charge, that I have been racist.
      Look. He fucked up.

      1. So fortunate for you to be able to cite your physical vision impairment, when faced with the accusation of being unable to see past your unwavering, inflexible view of justice, and scathing narcissism.
        Do you not think that Thomas’ work in the support of Indigenous communities is a real step towards solving racism, and other racial issues? The reason his reply to the predatory journalism may have seemed self-defensive, is that he doesn’t feel like he needs to turn his mistake into a move away from racism, so to speak, so long as he can keep doing his real work against racial issues, and simply deflect the journalists, many of whom would rather savagely dig-in to any public error, in order to rip a few clicks out of anyone they can.

      2. Further food for thought, if you’re interested: More indigenous Australians completely abstain from drinking than non-indigenous Australians. Interestingly, when you look at Thomas’ joke, his drinking carries him from a non-indigenous Australian, to an Indigenous Australian, to a little girl. As little girls are forbidden from drinking alcohol, by law, they are the least likely to be found drinking alcohol, next is Indigenous Australians, then non-indigenous Australians. So, if intentions truly don’t matter in analysis, Barthes-style, then maybe it’s your interpretation that truly causes offence. Literature and language are easily misinterpretable. I’d tentatively say English, in particular, knowing that it draws from many other parent languages which lend different syntax, and suffixes, and whatnot, but for all I know, other languages have similar problems. It’s stemmed in a semiotic issue, one thing to some may mean two things to you, and certainly you could say that you are deeply offended by it. But, hey, intentions don’t matter, right? So go ahead and re-interpret anything you feel like!
        Ugh. They’re words, Helen Razer. They’ll do to you what you let them do. Go and write an article about Rob Thomas’ altruistic actions towards Indigenous communities, where he ‘directly assists people’, rather than ‘says something that may possibly be interpreted in a way that seems to reference a certain issue’. Words do what you let them do, but actions are done. I understand, you’re a journalist, you have to sell stuff, and it’s hard to make money if you’re not reeeeally offended, but give it a go.

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