Diversity before Diversity: Evonne Goolagong


Evonne GoolagongA running theme at iSteve over the years has been to question the conventional wisdom that white racism long completely prevented the efflorescence of talent among the diverse and thus, under our more enlightened system of today, various diverse superstars in numerous fields will be arriving Real Soon Now.

Yet, in quite a few fields, I can recall various non-whites of the past who accomplished more than their more numerous and more accepted co-ethnics today. For instance, Pancho Gonzales, a cholo from East L.A., was among the the top American tennis players from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, while there are no Mexican-American touring pros today.

With the French Open tennis tournament going on currently, I`m reminded that Australian Aboriginal-surnamed Evonne Goolagong won the French Open in 1971, 41 years ago, following up with a Wimbledon triumph later that year. You can`t get much more diverse than Australian Aborigine. During this peak era in the popularity of tennis in general and women`s tennis in particular, Goolagong (after her marriage, Goolagong-Cawley) won 7 Grand Slam individual titles from 1971-1980. She was well-liked by the public; not as pretty as Chris Evert, but cuter than Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova.

One question is how Aboriginal she is. There was never any doubt in the public`s mind about her surname: Goolagong is an obviously Aboriginal sounding word, similar to “billabong,” which is famous from the opening line of Australia`s unofficial national anthem “Waltzing Matilda:” “Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong.”

On the other hand, Aboriginal looks seem to be somewhat recessive. If she weren`t named “Goolagong,” it`s not clear if non-Australians would have immediately guessed she was part-Aboriginal. This was an era of fashionable tanning and tennis players then tended to be well-tanned. Also, the most prominent Aboriginal facial feature, the heavy brow ridge, is less noticeable among female Aborigines.

Both her parents identified as mixed-race Aborigines who were assimilated into rural Australian working class culture. They were as beige-skinned as her, but some of her seven siblings ranged from brown to black. The Goolagongs were poor but not impoverished. They were the only Aboriginal family in a small town, and the Goolagong kids went to school with the white kids. Her father Kenny Goolagong was an itinerant sheep-shearer, but also the town`s golf champion. In the British commonwealth, golf is a less elitist sport than in America. And, Australia is possibly the most sports-oriented culture on earth.