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australia’s “right” to blackface: what we’ve learnt about our attitude to racism


Are these the kinds of jokes Australia wants to make?

Blackface. Can I still talk about it, or is it dead and buried in yesterday’s news?

I hope I haven’t missed the window of opportunity of that “time of year” when a social issue affects a celebrity and we all decide now’s the time for political conversations on Mexican immigration, racism in sport and men who enjoy fingers in the butt.

Pro-basketballer Alice Kunek’s choices last weekend were appalling. Not just one, but several. The Opals player bought brown paint with the intent to make herself look African American, took hours painting her body in an attempt to impersonate a black person and was so proud of her efforts that she wanted public gratification and shared it with her thousands of Instagram followers. She didn’t just “put on a costume”. Alice Kunek, an adult, public figure and member of the community, made a conscious effort to black herself up and score social brownie points for it.

Did we not learn anything from Darryl Summers’ red face (pun intended) when he received a warranted scolding from Harry Connick Jr on live television for hosting blackfaces on Hey Hey? Blackface is offensive and many people rightly reject it.

But in recent news, many people apparently embrace this racism. Kunek’s teammate, Liz Cambage, called-out Alice’s offensive behaviour and ever since, a plethora of trolls who are anti-anti-blackface have made themselves known. This cult backlash, which describes Alice Kunek’s disaster of a Kanye West costume as ‘just a bit of fun’, ‘not intending to be racist’ and ‘a joke that people think it’s racism’, is even more disappointing than the initial dress-up itself.

Cambage recently re-posted a loaded message that read, ‘Get over the fact that you’re black’. The effort people are going to to justify racist behaviour is almost as shocking as seeing someone rock up to a party covered in brown face paint.
Why are so many people supporting a person’s right to blackface?

‘Since when is dressing up considered racist?’ Twitter user @ButtHead4000 recently spat at Liz Cambage online. Ah… Since the early 1800s, that’s when.

Flashback: Blackface gained cultural recognition when it was used by minstrels to clown black people as being stupid, silly-looking and unintelligent. Just like Golliwogs, these old-fashioned performances continue to be the signifier of stomach-churning historical oppression. So, to the shockingly large number of hatersblackface enthusiasts on Twitter who have informed Liz Cambage that Alice Kunek’s behaviour is somehow ‘all in good fun’, I think it’s safe to say that white people lost their privilege to paint their faces black for comedy’s sake when they started to do it for pro-slavery propaganda purposes.

Are these the kinds of jokes that Australia wants to make?

There isn’t even huge difference between a minstrel’s exaggerated representation of an African American and Alice Kunek’s half-arsed cakeface. Alice and, sadly, many partygoers across Australia just like her do a shitty job of smearing brown paint over themselves in an attempt to look like a person of colour. And, according to Liz Cambage’s trolls, this isn’t meant to offend ethnic people? Question: How would you feel if someone suggested that your skin looked like cheap acrylic paint from a dollar shop? Blackface is not funny, it’s hurtful.

Another Twitter user and apparent racism expert, @denisjackson62 contributed, ‘…I don’t believe their [sic] was, or is, any racist intent in this.’ Yes, there is.

Progressing beyond the years of black people being stripped of their human rights, the concept of racial dress-ups is still deeply offensive. The act others ethnic minorities and racially abuses people of colour.

Painting yourself in order to portray a person of colour is basically making the statement that a black individual is different to you, the people that you associate with and what you perceive as the mainstream. So much so that their difference can be used as some whacky costume concept – it’s that different. For example, if a person were to take Alice’s lead and put together a Scary Spice‘costume’, complete with blackface, they would be making the comment that Mel B isn’t just a Spice Girl but The Black Spice Girl.

Blackface, like Alice’s Kanye West thing, as well as the gross Aboriginal portrayals I’ve seen in my Facebook feed over the years, are not only associated with historical oppression but contributes to, and further cements, white people’s already privileged position as society’s “norm”.

People need to start understanding terms like “privilege” and “power” if they are to truly understand why blackface is unacceptable and consequently, stop harassing victims. Instead, people are getting riled up on bogan buzz-words like ‘racist’ (kryptonite for bigots), or as one Twitter user calls it, ‘political correctness coming out of [Elizabeth Cambage’s] mouth.’.

Rather than firing arguments against people who feel personally victimised, audiences need to start taking minorities, like people of colour and women, seriously; they need to listen to them, empathise with them and understand that a mindless joke (which seemingly required a whole afternoon’s work), has wider implications beyond being the life of the party.

But how is this achieved if the perpetual cycle continues and minority voices are muffled by people in privileged positions due to the detrimental effects of othering? How can a person of colour expect to be taken seriously, call out political incorrectness or stand in positions of power if society accepts blackface as a hilarious outfit choice?

Social media has recently turned into a place for pro-blackface protesters to give lessons on what racism isn’t. But if you’re going to publicly side with an act that has a deep racist history and discriminates against ethnicities, you’re doing a good job of making yourself look like a racist. To all Liz Cambage’s eye-rollers, acknowledge that you’re the kind of person who thinks blackface is okay. And that’s not okay.

Let’s continue the conversation so Australia understands that this is not on.

Sophie Verass is a writer, radio maker and public speaker. She is currently based in Canberra and manages community radio, 2XX. Sophie’s work focuses on the underrepresentation of women, ethnic miniorities and general diversity in the media. You can follow Sophie on Twitter, @sophieverass

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