As she grew up Ms Ware admired the trail-blazing work of her father, the first Aboriginal cadet to graduate as a South Australian police officer, enormously. But she respected his concern about the venom that may flow if she dared raise her voice.
“He made me promise I wouldn’t stand up, be vocal or speak up until any children I had were strong enough to handle the backlash that would come with that,” says Ms Ware, whose son is 13.
“Now I have made a strong, beautiful and intelligent young man who is ready for his mum to step up.”
For decades, though she enjoyed her AFL football media career, including as host of the long-running cult hit The Marngrook Footy Show, Ms Ware navigated around the “systemic racism” she encountered without going public about it.
This month, after a series of race-based attacks on Instagram, she decided to take it on.
When several fake accounts bombed her page with racially vilifying content (as they have other Indigenous football figures), Ms Ware began an on-going campaign to force social media companies to stamp out bogus accounts.
He said to me only recently, ‘I won’t allow myself to be treated the way you’ve been treated’.
Shelley Ware, of her 13 year-old son, Taj
She launched strong criticism of Instagram for its lack of response and safeguards against racist trolling and for the ease with which fake accounts can operate unchallenged.
“I felt ready”, says Ms Ware of choosing this moment to speak out. “I’ve had a lot of Aboriginal people contact me saying to be safe and look after myself and be wary, but if we don’t start making social media platforms think about allowing this to happen then nothing’s going to change”.
Response by Instagram to her complaints was negligible. “They don’t care: I’ve had no contact from them, so I am in the process now with my friend who is a lawyer to formulate some action. I am making some next level plans.”
Ms Ware wants some form of identification to be mandatory to start an account. Though she has experienced worse racism in person than she did on Instagram, she believes her son’s generation of social media users should not have to endure its damaging impact.
“I’ve got a ridiculous resilience to racism, which I put down to years of experiencing it,” she says.
“We all have this armour we pop on whenever we’re going to be in the situation, so it bounces off me. But with every batch of it there’s a dent, and I don’t want the next generation to have to wear an armour.”
She is especially in tune with the experience of Indigenous young people in her educational role supporting 22 Aboriginal students from remote communities and Victoria as they do years 11 and 12 at Parade College. She describes them as “just the most brilliant humans; I’m really proud to have them in my life”.
As for Taj, Ms Ware says it was ultimately he who inspired her to raise her voice. “I had faced a lot of bullying at one of the places I worked and I thought I was hiding that from him. But I wasn’t.
“He said to me only recently, ‘I won’t allow myself to be treated the way you’ve been treated’. It killed me. I thought, ‘Hang on, what am I teaching my child? I do need to stand up more than I have been.’ And I did.”
Wendy Tuohy is a Sunday Age senior writer.