WARNING: This article has images some people may find distressing.
To continue this disturbing culture, this week another blackface scandal has been brought to our attention. LNP candidate, Kerri-Anne Dooley posed for a selfie with a man painted-up as the late Dr. M Yunupingu. After receiving backlash, Ms Dooley issued an apology, justifying the behaviour under the circumstances of it being at an Australian-themed party. She describing the event as "a great celebration of Australian life and culture". Considering the depressing regularity of blackface instances in Australia, Dooley’s friend pretty much nailed the theme by rocking up as racism (albeit unintentional).
Assuming that the optimal number for blackface occurrences is zero, smearing brown paint on your skin to portray a person of colour is, by large, common practice in Australia.
Assuming that the optimal number for blackface occurrences is zero, smearing brown face paint to portray a person of colour is, by large, common practice in Australia. While many might call it out as being ‘outdated’, the depressing reality is that this antiquated act didn’t die out with asbestos or cigarette adverts, and today, the prevalence of social media shows us that blackface is not only active in the 21st Century, but public and encouraged.
However, once a media storm hits, the subsequent apologies from those caught black-faced arrive with justifications as familiar as the news headlines themselves. Perpetrators often claim the act wasn’t motivated by racism, nor was it was intended to be hurtful, instead, it was merely a consequence of an Australian-themed party. Ms Dooley, Fabian Natoli and Jimmy Mayall and Nath Ross; it appears that Australiana parties are a breeding ground for minstrels.
And this is a key part of the problem. Yes, people claim to be unaware that painting one’s face resembles a movement that was historically used to lampoon black people, but also that wearing Aboriginality as a costume has a place in society.
This comes as a rather uncomfortable realisation for me as a white Australian who celebrated their 21st with an Australian-themed party. Yes, it's true. I am an Australian-theme party hoster. The idea seemed like an obvious choice for a foreigner living in London who was equal parts, homesick and needing an excuse to listen The Veronicas.
The calibre of costumes was high (which, admittedly, isn’t difficult when you occupy the mainstream dominant culture). Sandy from Grease, some surfers, a classic cork-hat wearer.
That is until white guests arrived as “Aboriginal people”, channeling Disney’s Pocahontas with tribal lines zinced on their cheeks. It was a total disaster, regardless of brown paint being absent and you only have to reflect on history to realise that British people dressing up as First Australians is unsettling to say the least. Definitely not a cultural area they should be attempting to permeate.
Even in the homes of ‘snowflakes’, even on the other side of the globe, eight years ago I learned that having a bunch of white people characterise Australian culture proved dangerous.
While it might seem naive to deem bad behaviour on a party theme, too many instances have suggested that these kinds of events give ignorant people an opportunity to demonstrate their ignorance.
In the same way that white people lost the privilege to own black rag dolls when they started using them as racist propaganda, many Australians are demonstrating that these parties are not all fun and games, and it's only a matter of time until the racist stereotype comes through the front door.
And is it any wonder that we end up with such racist stereotyping when the mainstream treats Aboriginal culture like an adornment of Australiana? In country that promotes Aboriginal culture by using knock-off designs for souvenirs and bric-a-brac and appropriates their implements for pranks and games, are we surprised when First Nations' identity is treated as novel as a hat with corks on it? With such a toxic understanding of Aboriginal culture, trusting non-Indigenous people to characterise Australia is as relaxing leaving a fox in a chicken coop.
With such a toxic understanding of Aboriginal culture, trusting non-Indigenous people to characterise Australia is as relaxing leaving a fox in a chicken coop.
Aboriginal culture is undeniably an iconic and strong visual image of our country. However, it’s hard to swallow the suggestion that imitating people and culture shows an appreciation of the contributions Indigenous groups have made to the nation. This is even more difficult when it's done in historically and culturally inaccurate outfits and a 19th Century style of racism to boot.
In regards to Dooley's friend, whatever his possible 'good intentions' behind the Yothu Yindi costume were, I think it’s safe to say that celebrating a man whose work was dedicated to the rights and wellbeing of Aboriginal people by racially appropriating him, is a lousy tribute.
If people wearing black-face are more and more becoming the spokespeople for Australian-themed events, the bar of national identity is being set very low.
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