When Liz Cambage raised the issue of racially and culturally insensitive behaviour, an opportunity was lost to have a progressive discussion
Ann Odong

22 Feb 2016 - 8:22 AM  UPDATED 23 Feb 2016 - 6:22 AM

What a brave, brave call from Elizabeth Cambage.

Yesterday on Twitter, Australian basketballer Cambage called out the practice of “blackface” by one of her Opals teammates. 

It is a brave call because when you grow up as a minority in any place, there is a deep need to assimilate, to fit in, to be invisible. 

There is an awareness of your “otherness” and calling awareness to your “otherness” is done with trepidation, if at all. 

There is an innate need to never stand out lest you give others the opportunity to notice your “otherness” and, in doing so, many minorities allow unacceptable behaviour to pass without challenging it. In fact, many of us go a lifetime without challenging it. 

Predictably, along with support, Cambage received the abuse that so many minorities are subject to regularly on the internet.  

Predictably, Alice Kunek was also subject to abuse and vitriol as Newton’s third law of physics - for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction - played out on the internet.

What we didn’t get is a discussion on what is so problematic with blackface and why it is NEVER okay. 

Singling out racist behaviour is not playing the victim or shaming; it is about education.

It is 2016, and even after Harry Connick Jr famously rebuked the nation in 2009, in some quarters there is still a fundamental lack of understanding why blackface is so offensive.

Originating in the United States, blackface was the use of makeup by performers (usually white) to impersonate or dress up as a black person.

The performances were usually centered around the mockery, degradation and dismissal of black people and their experiences at a time when they had no rights or personhood. 

"Blackface promoted harmful stereotypes of black people and the fact that advocates of slavery were encouraging of the practice tells you everything you need to know about it."

“Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery,” wrote North Carolina State University Associate Professor Blair L. M. Kelley in 2013

“These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave.”

In adopting blackface, whether you are aware or not, there is an unavoidable affiliation with a practice that was centered around hate, degradation and yes racism.

It is very easy to be outraged on the internet, but every now and then there are very real issues that should be discussed when they arise.

Much like the unprofessional treatment of Melanie McLaughlin opened a door for the discussion about the treatment of female journalists, this should have been a discussion about a cultural and racially insensitive behaviour. 

It should be about a nuanced discussion, preferably away from social media, where both parties are not vilified and abused as both Cambage and Kunek were.

Opals teammate Lauren Jackson articulated it best to the Sydney Morning Herald.

"It's important people understand the past and why this is an issue," Jackson said.

"It's important it's talked about but in same breath people need to understand that people make mistakes - in hindsight she wouldn't do this again."

Kunek has since apologised, and while a public shaming is unfortunate, hopefully the positive result is that as a nation we can continue to have the difficult discussions so that history doesn’t keep repeating itself.  

So yes, Liz Cambage was indeed brave and in doing so shouldered a lot of the abuse that many of us are too scared to raise our heads and cop.