The right to blackface. It’s a divisive issue. Apparently.
Jenna Martin

24 Feb 2016 - 3:17 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2016 - 3:23 PM

By now you know the story: Opals player Alice Kunek does her best Kanye impersonation -  right down to his skin colour - and fellow teammate Liz Cambage calls her out for being terrifyingly ignorant.  

The fact that a member of an elite national sports team accused a fellow team member of racism is pretty extraordinary. But not as extraordinary as what followed: a social media firestorm and a gaggle of TV “experts” from The Project, The Drum and… God help us… Sunrise... wondering if Cambage was right to bucket a teammate before genuinely asking the question: “Is blackface racist?

Jacqui Lambie thought Cambage was overreacting. Richard Glover decided he wasn’t offended either. The Project at least had the sensitivity to ask Allan Clarke - an Indigenous reporter from Buzzfeed - what he thought of the whole thing, though he did have to defend his position against Legit Racism Expert, Steve Price.  

In 2009, Harry Connick Jr famously blasted a skit on Hey Hey It’s Saturday which saw blacked up doctors rock out as the Jackson 5. HCJ scolded us, the audience booed him for ruining their fun and Australia copped a bit of flak in world media for being a nation of casual racists.

That was seven years ago - we should have grown up by now but what’s been blindingly obvious these last few days is that what is considered “racist” is still a hugely divisive issue. Somehow.

Let's break it down... 


Argument 1: It’s just a joke. People need to chill out.

White people are right about one thing: Blackface IS a joke. The concept began as a joke in the United States in the late 1700’s with white actors slip slop slapping on the greasepaint and hamming up “black” accents and physicality. It was always meant to be a caricature, always meant to be grotesque.

Furthermore, beyond the obvious offensive elements it also set the portrayal of cultural minorities back hundreds of years, something we’re still affected by today. A recent report claimed that of the 11,000 speaking parts that appeared in 2014 studio films and live-action scripted TV shows from the last year, 28% were non-white.

This system is built on blackface – a system in which Emma Stone is still being cast as half-Asian, lots of white dudes are cast as Egyptian and Joseph Fiennes is preparing to play Michael Jackson (that’s a British production – they’ve clearly got their own problems).


Argument 2: She didn’t know it was offensive. It was an honest mistake.

No one is really denying the sincerity in Alice’s apology: she truly seems to not know it was racist. But therein lies the issue of white privilege, which, as straight-out-legend Nakkiah Lui suggested, is the real problem in Australia, not racism. Being white gives you the opportunity to ignore things that don’t affect you. This has to change.

Alice is a public figure. She’s active on social media and she is a member of a national sports team, representing Australia at an elite level, travelling around the world getting exposure to people of all walks and colours of life. My 94- year- old grandmother died a few years ago having never had an internet connection nor left Sydney’s Sutherland shire and used to call Barack Obama “That Darkie”. She almost had an excuse for her ignorance: Alice does not. Her teammate Liz Cambage is a spokesperson for the “Racism: It Stops with Me” campaign. For Alice to not have more social awareness isn’t just insulting, it’s lazy and elitist.  

Which leads us to…


Argument 3: If blackface is done in a way of celebrating a black cultural icon, is it still offensive?

Yes. Because it’s assuming that their innate blackness is part of their success in a way that whiteness isn’t. On The Project, Waleed Aly made sense (as usual) by saying, I wouldn’t white up. Because whiteness isn’t something that is remarkable enough to do that.” The fact that we think blackness is a distinguishing feature is the root of the problem. It’s fine to support Serena Williams at the tennis- but you don’t have to dress like this:

It’s also fine to be a huge fan of Kanye West (well, it’s not really because he’s a giant douchebag but that’s an entirely different issue) but you can show your support in a less offensive way. Perhaps like this:  


Argument 4: Blackface is an American problem, not an Australian one.

Richard Glover on Sunrise suggested that blackface was really an American thing and Alice Kunek’s mistake was just that - a mistake, owing to the fact that until recently Australians weren’t really aware that blackface was heinously offensive.

But if you go through Australia’s cultural history there is example after example of white people blacking up in the name of entertainment. The 1834 play Bushrangers had an Aboriginal character named only as “Native”, played by a white actor in boot polish. The 1955 film Jedda did use Aboriginal actors but also chose a blacked-up white actor to play the role of “Half Caste Joe”. In 1985, there was something called the Black & White Minstrel Revue...

And then there's Chris Lilley in Angry Boys and, of course, the infamous Hey Hey, It’s Saturday skit.

Suggesting that white Australia doesn’t have a blackface history is simply naïve.


Argument 5: Is Australia racist? What is it about Australian culture that creates a backlash when someone is called racist?

Aussies like to think they’re laid back, unpretentious and down-to-earth. These aren’t bad qualities, but for them to work they rely on everybody being fine with being the butt of a joke, no matter how offensive that joke might be. There is an argument to be made that political correctness is out of control. But there’s an equally strong argument to be made that the people who used to run the joint (mostly white blokes) are becoming out numbered and they’re getting scared and getting their backs up anytime anyone challenges their right to be as offensive AF.


Argument 6: Who gets to decide what is and isn’t racist?

Allan Clarke should really have the last word on this whole thing. When Angry White Man Steve Price told him last night on The Project that he was getting upset over nothing, his response was perfect: “Let the people of colour define what’s racist. Let them define what’s offensive to them.”

This should be the full stop on the whole argument. Steve Price doesn’t get to decide what’s racist. I myself have Indigenous ancestry a few generations back that I’m incredibly proud of - but for all intents and purposes, I look like a middle class white lady and I have no understanding of what racism is because it’s never been directed at me. I don’t get to decide what’s racist.

As a woman, I DO get to decide what is sexual harassment, just as Muslim Australians get to decide what is religious vilification, just as members of the LGBT community get to decide what behaviour is and isn’t discrimination.

People of colour - regardless of their ancestry - say that blackface is outdated, offensive and insulting. Listen to them. They know what they’re talking about because they’ve lived it.