We need to talk about Racism…
Over a year ago I was rightly canned by the local paper for saying ‘blackface’ shouldn’t always necessarily be deemed offensive. This was in the context of people dressing up as their Indigenous sporting hero’s for a costume party – I was very wrong.
After much reflection, I decided to explore the issue further in an essay for my Latrobe Bachelor of Arts course (below). Blackface is ALWAYS offensive, it’s a matter of getting the message out there so people are aware of their choices. This is best done in a respectful manner so conversations like these can happen on a regular basis. Growing up as a child in QLD with Joh Bjelke Petersen, racism has gone under the radar for me and thousands of other well-meaning white-Australians. I hope this essay sheds some light on the topic and I’m sincerely sorry for any offence I may have caused to our local Indigenous population in Greater Shepparton and beyond.
Discuss blackface discourse in relation to Indigenous Australia
The discourse of blackface in Australia took a different path to comparable countries around the world. Prior to colonialism, blackface was used in Carnival. From there it evolved through Minstrelsy into a strong symbol of racial oppression. However, blackface has only recently been recognised by white Australia as racist. This essay will examine how the discourse of blackface differed across international borders, how Indigenous culture was silenced by blackface in early Australian film, the way blackface is used as a social leveller, and white-Australia’s defence of the ‘Jackson Jive’, ‘Hey Hey it’s Saturday’ skit. White-Australian responses to racist criticisms generally avoid discussing racism, instead drawing questions around national identity, white privilege and use of reverse racism. From there this essay discusses humour, as well as the advent of Indigenous voices in TV programs and theatre. Broad repercussions of racism are linked with equity, transnationalism and Indigenous voices in social media. To finish, this essay hypothesises that blackface is offensive, but many in the white majority are yet to recognise why.
When most people think of ‘blackface’, images of US Minstrelsy come to mind. Minstrelsy has been associated with racial struggles since the 1800s, however, the origin of blackface vaudeville stretches back much further than that (Gilbert 2003, Stratton 2011). In early Carnival, blackface represented the subversive ‘other’ – worn by larrikins who upset fixed social hierarchies by parodying their ‘betters’ (Stratton 2011, p.28). As Gilbert (2011) describes, blackface in these rituals “signalled that what followed was to be taken as burlesque, not at face value” so did not explicitly pantomime race (pp. 681).
The popularity of Minstrel Shows reached its highest level of popularity when technology allowed the broadcast of Minstrelsy into thousands of living rooms across the world. ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ was popular in Australia, screening on ABC until as late as 1978 and the early travelling version of this show toured Sydney and Melbourne in 1963/64, attracting audiences of over 150,000 (Stratton 2011). Minstrelsy became a household phenomenon and no one seemed to question blackface. There was very little, if any, public backlash from the Indigenous community, which reflects the sheer dominance of white Australia at that time.
Blackface in general was synonymous with an unquestioned and romanticised white privilege. This was so insipid that early blackface resembled apathetic storytelling – more a reflection of public sentiment, or norms, than a political tool. For example, Gilbert (2003) describes how Red Indians were originally portrayed in blackface as noble chiefs, but following the Civil War, Red Indians evolved into treacherous schemers (p. 648). Yet, Wetherell and Potter (1992) describe racial discourse as anything that has the effect of “establishing, sustaining and reinforcing oppressive power relations” (p. 70). Once people recognised blackface characters were always subordinate to a white character, the image became politicised as an inherent and explicit symbol of racial oppression.
It’s taken white Australia longer to become aware of the racial interpretation of blackface. Whilst the US civil rights movement gave blackface a high profile, Australia quietly awarded land and voting rights to Indigenous people without much of a stir. Malevolent protests lead by African American activists and civil rights groups contested racist media representations, leading to the demise of such TV programs like Minstrel, ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ and ‘Jose’ Jiménez’ (Pérez p. 41). The Black Panthers, Civil Rights Congress and Martin Luther King, fascinated America and kept racial politics centre stage in popular media. Meanwhile, most of white Australia seemed content in the false belief that their society was egalitarian (Probert 2000).
Early Aboriginal actors were rare and film roles were few prior to 1970, which limited opportunities to showcase authentic Indigenous culture. Typically, the Aboriginal character was a “loyal sidekick to the bushranging hero, invariably played by a white man in blackface” (Pike 1977, p. 592). Therefore, Charles Chauvel’s ‘Jedda’ (1955) is significant for stepping outside the ‘blackface’ stereotype. Chauvel searched extensively before settling on actual Aboriginal people to play two lead parts, but used blackface for the character of Joe, a successful head stockman and lead narrator of the film. Chauvel’s ‘Joe’ was of upstanding moral, social and professional character, even by white standards, but the fact remains Chauvel imposed his white world view onto the character, and indeed onto the script itself.
Cultural sensitivities can vary between time and space. Perhaps, due to Chauvel’s background in vaudeville and the limited contribution of Aboriginal people in film, he had little comprehension that reducing the colour of one’s skin to a costume could be deemed offensive. Dark skin carries an inescapable legacy of violence and racial oppression, so using make-up to paint on blackface makes a mockery of dark skinned genealogy, which cannot be washed off after a long day filming – “When Chauvel wore and directed blackface he was, perhaps quite unconsciously, reiterating racial fictions that had justified violent colonialism and slavery since the eighteenth Century” (Miller 2007, p. 141).
Aboriginal people who step outside the submissive stereotype have been discredited and attacked by blackface. Stratton (2011) believes “Australian blackface … can be understood as a way of managing anxiety about those identified as non-white” (p. 31). He draws parallels between blackface and uprising Indigenous personalities, such as Nicky Winmar, a successful Indigenous AFL player and proud Indigenous man. The courageous image of Winmar pulling up his football jersey and pointing to his dark skin is iconic. Sam Newman from ‘The Footy Show’ (1999) tried to humiliate Winmar by dressing up as him in blackface. Shockingly, most of white-Australia did not believe he should apologise (Stratton 2011, p. 33).
In 2006, Australia was thrust under the international limelight following a ‘Hey Hey, it’s Saturday’ skit, when American TV guest Harry Connick Jnr called out racism over a blackface performance by the ‘Jackson Jive’. A similar blackface performance by the same group had aired 2 decades prior, but it went under the radar. Stratton (2011) described the performance as “mundane”, judge Jackie McDonald gave the act a 7/10, calling it “cute” and “well-choreographed”, while the audience screamed for a score of 10/10 (Stratton 2011, p. 22). It only became an issue when Connick Jnr spoke up and much of white Australia reflexively defended the act.
The ‘Jackson Jive’ was condemned by America, Canada and the UK, but rather than discuss racism, the white-Australian public turned its focus on to international ‘others’ and the perceived undermining of what it means to be Australian (Due 2011, Stratton 2011). White Australians felt compelled to defend their national identity and the idea that Australia has always been a ‘tolerant country’ (Due 2011, p. 40). This asserted tolerance is easily rebutted by reminding ourselves of the White Australia policy. Even today, Australian policy around asylum seekers and 457 Visas arguably reflect fear of the ‘other’. Australia has always been a country of immigrants, whilst being simultaneously “preoccupied with whiteness” (Stratton 2011, p. 31). One could argue that, as values shifted and society began to recognise race as a means of justifying oppression, the Minstrel ‘other’ has been insidiously resurrected in the form of ethnicity or nationality (Due 2011, p. 42).
The fact all members of the ‘Jackson Jive’ come from multicultural backgrounds does not make their use of blackface any less racist. Power lies in the dominant dichotomy and blackface is often employed to project whiteness (Gilbert 2003). For instance, the audience is acutely aware the ‘other’ is not the performer, but whom the performer wishes to portray. Therefore, one could hypothesise blackface was used by the ‘Jackson Jive’ performers – most of whom are of Indian heritage – in order to align closer with a white Australian norm.
‘Reverse racism’ is rife in white Australia. That is, people commonly react with victim-blaming behaviour towards those who don’t get the joke, turning the conversation around to defend the perpetrator (Stratton 2011, p. 39). Yorta Yorta rapper Briggs pointed out, “[y]ou know you’re in Australia when pointing out Racism is worse than Racism” (Noyes 2016). For example, Alice Kuneck is a sportsperson who dressed in blackface to emulate her idol. Liz Cambage, an African-Australian team-mate, saw it as a mockery of her culture and spoke out to the media. However, an online article by Ward and Cherny (2016) painted Kuneck as naïve, at the same time Cambage was receiving hostile online commentary (Noyes 2016). Paradoxically, denial of racism has become an enabling vehicle for racism (Gilbert 2003).
White-Australia also trivialises racism by labelling it ‘Aussie humour’. This form of humour, “self-depreciating, defiant and ironic”, is considered by Due (2011) to be uniquely Australian and fundamental to Australian national identity. Despite Due’s assumption that Aussie humour is associated with ‘whiteness’, this is not exclusive. Indigenous programs such as ‘Basically Black’ (1973) and ‘Black Comedy’ (2014) feature a similar style. However, rather than tokenism, forced and subsidised by blackface actors, these programs actively empower Indigenous actors, writers and role models within their own community. They offer a parody of Indigenous people, by Indigenous people, not one forced on them by a dominant white culture. Rather than oppress, Indigenous comedy uses humour to open up sensitive discussions and “boldly [have] a crack at everyone” (Due 2011, Chelsea Bond, quoted by Neill 2015, p. 44).
Indigenous theatre also employs race-changing to explore skin colour as the defining instrument of race and power. Whilst blackface reflects an impenetrable, unquestioned and invisible symbol of white superiority – “blackface…can incorporate criticisms to present an anti-racist whiteness that is still assumed to be superior to its other”, Indigenous whiteface subverts and exaggerates the same racial assumptions (Miller 2007, p. 148). Whiteface produces a spectacular anomaly that makes the majority or dominant white race starkly visible. It cleverly “reverses the imperialist gaze” to reveal all the assumptions around racial privilege and prejudice – “From there, we can begin to dismantle it” (Gilbert 2003, p 679).
Australian mainstream culture has long stood by the myth that we are a classless or egalitarian society (Probert 2000). This view changed in the late 20th century in-part because we realised equal treatment does not produce equal outcomes. The gap between health outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous population is significant, and racism plays a big part in that (Eades 2000). When white Australians defend blackface by saying “Aboriginal people have it easier than everyone else in this country”, Indigenous people speak up. Sis Austin labels to these assertions as pure fallacy that perpetuates a class divide (Noyes 2016). Only by recognising inequalities, resourcing and empowering communities, can we begin to move forward as a nation on equal footing (Eades 2000).
Dunbar-Hall (2004) refers to transnationalism as a converging of cross-border cultures. This phenomenon is largely enabled by global media and cannot be understated. It stands to reason Indigenous Australians will relate to politically charged material from other countries as a means of expressing their own frustration with white oppression. The same way young Indigenous Australians identify with African-American music genres like Hip-Hop and RNB, they identify with blackface, and the advent of social media has allowed them a strong oppositional voice.
Social media has enabled Indigenous Australians to go from passive observers, to active protagonists in the blackface debate. A string of high profile media personalities such as Louise Beers, Sam Newman, Chris Lilley and Simon Barker, coupled with a string of lesser known social media incidents, have mobilised an online army of anti-racist commentators. Indigenous rapper Briggs and singer Thelma Plum are “naming and shaming” by sharing screenshots of blackface and racially offensive comments online (Noyes 2016). Hugo Gruzman (a white person) wandered into a debate with the notion that blackface only applies to US Minstrel actors prior to the mid 1900’s. He said “[Briggs] didn’t make it clear why it’s offensive” (Anon 2017). The debate which ensued was scathing and angry, reflecting how blackface is currently a highly sensitive and emotionally charged subject.
Blackface is a topical and poignant image that exploits racial differences for the benefit of people with white skin. It makes a mockery of Indigenous culture and contributes to gross inequality. This essay explored how authentic Indigenous culture was hidden behind blackface in early Australian film, the way blackface has deliberately undermined the success of Indigenous people and how white-Australia responded to criticisms of racism following ‘Jackson Jive’. We examined racism in the context of national identity, multiculturalism and deconstructed ‘reverse racism’. Aussie-humour in both mainstream and Indigenous TV programs was considered, as was whiteface in Indigenous theatre. We, questioned the idea of Australia as an egalitarian country and examined transnationalism between Australia and other continents. To conclude, Australia has been slow to embrace the idea that blackface racist, but with the inclusion of Indigenous voices in mainstream and social media, things are changing. The meaning of blackface is not binary or fixed. It has evolved since the beginning of recorded time and will continue to evolve as societal expectations change. Despite this, and despite the attitude of many white Australians, one thing is certain – blackface is always racist right now.
Anon 2016, ‘BRIGGS FKN RINSES FLIGHT FACILITIES’ HUGO OVER BLACKFACE ‘HISTORY LESSON’, Pedestrian, viewed on 21st April 2017, https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/arts-and-culture/briggs-fkn-rinses-flight-facilities-hugo-over-blac/878ec297-3213-4601-bbd6-956913425729.htm
Cherny, D. Ward, R. 2016, ‘Opals forward Alice Kunek apologises after angering Liz Cambage with ‘blackface’ post’ The Sydney Morning Herald, viewed on 21st April 2017, https://www,smh.com.au/sport/basketball/opals-forward-alice-kunek-apologises-after-angering-liz-cambage-with-blackface-post-20160221-gmzlg5.html
Due, C 2011, ‘’Aussie humour’ or racism? ‘Hey Hey it’s Saturday’ and the denial of racism in online responses to news media articles’, Journal of Media and Communication, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 36-53
Dunbar-Hall, P & Gibson, C 2004, Deadly sounds, deadly places: contemporary aboriginal music in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, pp. 119-133
Eades, S 2000, “Reconcilliation, Social Equity and Indigenous Health”, Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal, vol. 24, no.3, pp. 3-4
Gilbert, H 2003, ‘Black and White and Re(a)d All Over Again: Indigenous Minstrelsy in Contemporary Canadian and Australian Theatre’, Theatre Journal, vol. 55, no. 4, pp. 679-699
Jedda 1955, DVD, National Film and Sound Archive, Australia
Miller, B 2007, ‘The Mirror of Whiteness: Blackface in Charles Chauvel’s Jedda’, Journal of the association of Australian Journalism, [special edition], pp. 140-156
Neill, A 2015, ‘Laughing with us: ‘Black comedy’ and Aboriginal humour’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, no. 185, pp. 40-45.
Noyes 2016, Aboriginal musicians Briggs and Thelma Plum are naming and shaming racists on Facebook, Daily Life, viewed 22nd April 2016, <http://mdailylike.com.au/dl-people/dl-entertainment/aboriginal-musicians-briggs-and-thelma-plum-are-naming-and-shaming-racists-on-facebook- 20160201-gmikx9.html>
Pérez, R 2016, ‘Brownface Minstrelsy – “Jose’ Jiménez” the civil rights movement, and the legacy of racist comedy’
Pike, A 1977, ‘Aboriginals in Australian Feature Films’, Meanjin, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 592-599
Probert, Belinda 2000 ‘Class in the Year 2001′, Australian Rationalist, no. 56, pp. 5-14
Stratton, J 2011, ‘The Jackson Jive: Blackface Today and the Limits of Whiteness in Australia’, The Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 22-41
Wetherell, M & Potter, J 1992, Mapping the language of Racism: Discourse and the Legitimation of Exploitation, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London.