Defending Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas

The modern world loves a good controversy. In the age of social media, the world seems to be becoming progressively more sensitive, taking soundbites out of proportion and abandoning rational context at the door. We’re all quick to rush to judgment.

One example involves Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas, who is currently in Australia promoting his new solo album “The Great Unknown.” Thomas is known for having a sense of humor and being a little vulgar at times. Does this make him a bad man? No.

Thomas is actually quite the opposite.

But the recent controversy saw him making a comment about drinking in Australia.

TMZ reported:

The former Matchbox 20 front man was in Melbourne Friday and when talking about his flight over says, “I drink til I think I’m Australian.” Rob continues, “And then I keep drinking til I think I’m a black Australian.” A big no-no considering the history and current struggle of alcohol abuse among natives.

Now admittedly, not being Australian and learning most of what I know about Australia from “Crocodile Dundee” (INTERNET DISCLAIMER: This is a joke), I’m quite ignorant as to the world out there. So I researched a bit.

Siv Parker, an Australian blogger, wrote an excellent piece about this entire issue and provided more insight than I could directly.

One point:

Rob Thomas makes some cheerful banter with the audience. He could have just said ‘Hello Melbourne, so happy to be here’ or “how about them … women cricketers’ or ‘I cant wait to see a koala’. Lots of things he could have said.

But he chose to make a joke. I’ve heard variations of that joke before. I think anyone who has seen a fair amount of comedy would say transformations is a common subject, a rich source for comedy.

And just suppose Rob Thomas’s remarks were self-deprecating. He was making fun of himself. And welcoming Australian fans into his show. And paying homage to Indigenous Australians.

This coming from an individual who is “joint winner of the 2014 Melbourne Writers’ Festival Blurb Blog to Book challenge and will be the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a blog book,” according to her blog site.

To his credit, Thomas had a pair of heartfelt apologies. It wasn’t a cheap wooden apology manufactured by some PR firm pushing political correctness. It was from a man who was in Australia to entertain and in this quest to entertain, unintentionally offended his fans and took it to heart.

Rob Thomas’s apology:

After the show in Melbourne tonight while backstage with some of my Australian friends, it was brought to my attention that I said something that is racist and insensitive.

Please understand that although it is no excuse, I was completely unaware that in Australia there is a polarizing social issue happening right now involving indigenous people and alcohol.

When I was made aware of it, the ground fell out beneath me, and I realized that people may now see me as the exact opposite of who I am.

I’m 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.

I know that words are just words, but to those I offended, I deeply, DEEPLY apologize!
Everyone who knows me is aware that for the past 20 years I have been a fervent supporter of civil rights, so I am incredibly embarrassed by my ignorance.

I feel like a fool and apologize to all Australians.

Sounds genuine. Then later, Thomas takes the opportunity to explain further:

I would like to take an opportunity to further explain the comments I made in Melbourne last night.

First, please understand that I did not intend to make a joke ABOUT race. I have seen people comment that after coming here for so long I should know that there is a connection between the indigenous peoples of Australia and a stereotype involving drinking. Embarrassingly, I truly didn’t.

The joke I made was meant to be at no one’s expense but my own. I made a comment about drinking so much on the long flight over that i started to think i was something i’m not.

I said I drank until I thought I was Australian. Then I drank so much that I thought I was a black Australian and then I drank so much I thought I was a little Australian girl. These were 3 things I chose at random to represent 3 things I’m not. I’m not Australian. I’m not black and I’m not a little girl. Again, if I had any idea of the stereotype I would have chosen another example. There was absolutely no malice even in jest.

I was so ignorant to the situation that when I heard people groan I actually thought THEY were being racist. I didn’t know until TODAY that just the phrase ‘black Australian’ was racist all on it’s own. I sat in my room and I cried when I found out.

If I had said it anywhere in the world my intention would have been the same. To relate 3 seemingly unrelated things that I’m not. Things that have no connection to any stereotypes whatsoever.

I am truly sorry for how this came across, most of all to the indigenous people here. Australia has been so good to me for so long that I’m embarrassed I don’t know more about the history and the culture.

While I’m here I’m going to use this opportunity to rectify that. I promise you this!

The problem with this whole thing is the Internet completely missed the final line about drinking so much he felt like a little girl, which was a critical part of the moment. Thomas clearly wasn’t being racist or offensive. Was he being insensitive? Perhaps unintentionally, but there was clearly no malice.

More from Parker:

If I had been at the venue, I would have got the joke, as soon as I heard ‘little girl’.

And I would have sensed the chk chk boom as people tweeted what they had just heard and it rapidly caught fire on Twitter. In 140 characters, who has space to include the reference to the little girl?

There was booing in the crowd. Black Australia is 3% of the Australian population, so it’s good to hear that the largely nonIndigenous Australians were concerned about what at first appeared to be a blatantly offensive remark.

It wasn’t until Rob Thomas had apologized twice in writing on Facebook that the full story emerged.

This highlights a trend in society of being hypersensitive to a point of absurdity. Is it important to be respectful of all races? Absolutely. But Thomas clearly meant no disrespect.

As Parker continues:

If people in Australia can continue to post photos of themselves in blackface, and claim they didn’t know it was offensive, how does a man from another country have any idea you can’t link alcohol to black Australians without concerns it contributes to ongoing and disastrous repercussions for how we are perceived in our own country?

Parker notes this, but also going on to discuss the plight of aboriginals. It’s heartbreaking and completely understandable why people may take things to heart. But instead of Internet outrage, this is an excellent opportunity to educate. Thomas himself has posted on social media about how he has learned from his mistake.

In reading about this for a few days and throughout the course of writing this article, I learned a lot as well. You should too.

In closing, what Parker herself closed with:

What Rob Thomas said isn’t life or death, though he has said he feels very sad about what has happened. If I went to another country and slipped up, talked about their passing or called them the wrong name, I wouldn’t want to be spread across their online spaces as a bigot and a fool.

Where I come from, until you did us wrong, we gave you the benefit of the doubt. We already had enough to deal with without looking for more conflict. And if you said the wrong thing, even when we pointed out the problem, we’d probably tell you to take a good hard look at yourself.

Let’s learn from these things, America. Learn from Thomas’s mistake, learn from the insight of people like Siv Parker, and know the world around us.

And rock on, Rob Thomas.

Chris Dixon

About Chris Dixon

Chris Dixon is a libertarian-leaning writer. In addition to writing "Undercover Porcupine", he is also the Managing Editor for The Liberty Conservative and writes for Cleat Geeks and Medium.