Blackface in Australia

In a stunning break with brand, we’re starting with a blockquote from somewhere else:

Sadly, the glorious run came to an end in somewhat dramatic fashion this weekend after Opals star Alice Kunek posted an image of herself in blackface, apparently “in support of” rapper Kanye West. No word from Mr West on how he feels about that ‘support’, but we’ll hazard a guess that an African-American musician would not be overly into the idea of reappropriating the aesthetic of a famously racist musical form.

After Kunek was called out by teammate Elizabeth Cambage, a furious reaction ensued. (Against Cambage.)

Quokkas, let’s talk about blackface, again.

A brief history of blackface in Australia

Every time this issue comes up, there’s always some drongo going, “But we’re not America!  We don’t have the same history of slavery and racism that they do, so blackface isn’t racist here!”

And they’re half right — we don’t have the same history of slavery and racism as the US.  We have a history of slavery and racism all our very own.  And it still doesn’t make blackface acceptable.

For some reason, the average Australian doesn’t seem to have much familiarity with Aussie pop culture of the nineteenth century.  Luckily for all of you, Liz did a single undergraduate class on the history of Australian pop culture, and can therefore drop some small, basic knowledge bombs.

Liz says: 

Aussie pop culture in the 19th century mostly took its cues from the US and the UK.  Especially the US.  And the United States’s biggest contribution to international popular culture in the 1800s was the minstrel show.

Newspaper advertisement reading 'After which, by particular desire, Mr YOUNG, for the second time here, will appear as the CONGO MINSTREL, and will introduce the favourite N***** Melody of Whar Do You Come From, bone castinet accompaniment'.
Advertisement from The Argus, Monday 16 July 1849

A minstrel show generally involved a bunch of white guys in blackface, making racist jokes and performing what were known as “n***** songs”.  Very occasionally, the minstrels were actual black people, although often they were then made up to fit the white, racist idea of what black people looked like — which is to say, white people in blackface.

For a very long time, minstrel shows were literally the only place that black people could see themselves in popular culture — and what they saw was a racist distortion created for the entertainment of white people and the upholding of white supremacist ideas.

Minstrel shows themselves are largely forgotten now, but their echoes linger.  Golliwogs take their design from minstrel blackface, which is why many people recoil from the sight of them.  And their legacy echoes every time some white douchebag decides it would be hilarious to black up for a sporting event or a costume party or whatever.

A second newspaper advertisement, much longer than the first, with the same use of the N word.
The Argus, Tuesday 4 December 1855

Now, blackface and minstrelsy lingered in the UK well after it became verboten in the US.  There’s an episode of The Goodies, a show I grew up on and still mostly love, where the guys get religion, which is to say that Graeme becomes a stereotypical greedy Jew, and Bill gets into the boot polish and declares himself a black Muslim.

I … do not watch that episode anymore.

That was in the ’70s.  The Black and White Minstrel Show, which is exactly what it sounds like, ran from 1958 to 1978.  That’s only four years before I was born.

Australia has been similarly slow to get the memo that blackface is not appropriate. Every couple of years, there’s a to-do on social media because admiring and dedicated fans of a performer of colour have blacked up, and we go through the same old routine of “It’s not racist!  It’s a tribute!  How dare you bring up racism?  MAYBE YOU’RE THE ONE WHO’S RACIST!”

Steph says: 

This is only the tip of the racist derailment iceberg.

A really good derailment serves several purposes:

  • It turns a situation around and blames the victim.
  • It allows the discussion to become about the good of the community and derails into supporting your country/community/other artificial boundary.
  • It redirects from a discussion about institutional racism and change and becomes about the self, and about the feelings, of the party committing the racist act (#notallwhitepeople).
  • It becomes an argument about sports people or artists making it “all about politics” when we “just want to have a good time,” and how that’s unaustralian.

To have a face covered in mud or dirt or coal or soot due to one’s job isn’t blackface. Please don’t use this as an argument defending a racist tradition. It is a terrible argument and you should feel terrible for making it.

White people, especially racist white figureheads who have been figures of horror and nightmare for brown kids across this nation for about 20 years now, shouldn’t be asked their opinion on if an action is racist. Their breathing is racist. Their pinkie fingers are racist.

A wrap up:

If the media spent less time on the blackface “debate” and more time outlining why it’s bad, the next few uproars could be avoided.

Here are some links:

Blackface & minstrel shows — a more detailed history of the practice from an Indigenous-Australian perspective.

White Australia has a blackface history

What’s all the fuss about ‘blackface?

Here is an excellent comment by Ketan Joshi, explaining why blackface is bad.

You see me as an amorphous, brown figure – a part of me that I had no involvement in creating is, according to you, a major part of me. I can never change that. That is how you see me: a brown man.

This is why it really hurts people who belong to a group that is visibly different, when you collectively rise up and say to them ‘a feature of your body is a costume, to me. It’s a bit of you that you can never disown, and you have no say in how much of you it comprises. We decide, and you have no power to stop this. Even if you ask us to stop, we won’t. If you tell us it hurts, that it cuts you to the core, we won’t stop’.

So, you know. Consider that it hurts, not because of some evil push for political correctness, but because it actually hurts – because we’re not lying, or faking it.



One thought on “Blackface in Australia

  1. Vi

    Damnit, I wish I had this excellent article to refer people to back during the “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” blackface thing. I had so many arguments with people about blackface in Australia at that time. =\

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