Should Australia Lighten-up on Blackface?

Mia Freedman yesterday posed a question for white Australia: if we can’t enjoy fun racism without being subjected to “confected outrage” how can we be expected to know when something is really REALLY racist?

The “batshit crazy” reaction Freedman decries in her superciliously titled article The Boy who cried Racist is the rather mildly stated objection to Delta Goodrem’s re-tweeted photograph of Voice fans heading to a costume party, where one white man wore blackface to imitate judge Seal.

“The vitriol was so intense, Delta was forced to delete the tweet and release a statement to insist she is not indeed racist” Freedman said.

I’m not sure when calling out racism became synonymous with vitriol but it seems in Freedman/Goodrem-land, it’s a tough day when you’re “forced” to hit the delete button and release a single-sentence statement.

The tweet was no doubt embarrassing for Goodrem, who only recently came under fire for her impression of “the soul thing” black people apparently do to explain why she felt contestant Steve Clisby and fellow Voice judge Seal were “brothers” in the Derek Zoolander sense.

Goodrem has reportedly distanced herself from accusations of racism (unsurprising, seeing as pretty much no-one self-identifies as a racist) saying she did not intend to cause offence.

Predictably, social media is awash with indignant cries of “playing the race card” with fans claiming Goodrem is the victim of jealous, oversensitive, PC-obsessed killjoys. Hundreds of (mostly white) commenters have rushed to explain that actually the incident isn’t racist or deserving of objection because they have personally decided that it isn’t.

https://cwinterfox.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/this-is-not-blackface-comment.png

See, it’s not racism because Wikipedia says so!

Freedman spurs on these objections: “[T]here is a huge difference between painting your face black to mock an entire race and painting yourself black to respectfully dress up as someone who has black skin.”

I have to wonder what exactly she considers “respectful” here. The attention to detail in recreating Seal’s Lupus scars, perhaps? Freedman doesn’t actually go on to explain what the difference is, just that she, as a white person, feels instinctively like there is one.

It’s astonishing that white Australians still think we get to decide how racist something is. As Melbourne comedian and activist Aamer Rahman, who originally shared the infamous tweet, puts it:

“When we claim that it is petty or unimportant to call out racist celebrity misbehaviour because there is worse racism out there, we fails to understand that normalising the casual mockery of people of colour through accepted mainstream culture – structurally preserving a white majority’s right to have fun at someone else’s expense – is a key building block in maintaining the hierarchy of racism. It’s naive to write off this kind of seemingly banal, pervasive everyday behaviour as if it somehow has no connection to people ultimately experiencing actual systemic violence like the NT Intervention, the War on Terror, our refugee policy, and Australia’s unwillingness to question our role in the dispossession of Aboriginal people.”

Whether Delta Goodrem or the man dressed as Seal meant to evoke racial stereotypes or not is irrelevant. We can all accept some responsibility for the situation in Australian media where a white person feels comfortable projecting a perceived affinity between two black people who happen to be in the same room on live television, then tweets an image of another white person wearing blackface to depict a colleague.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that we don’t seem to have learned anything since the Hey Hey It’s Racism! incident of 2009, after which the ABC’s Q&A thought an appropriate response was to appoint an all-white panel to discuss whether or not blackface is offensive.

In that episode Germaine Greer raised the parallel with men in drag as offensive caricatures of femininity; another idea which, given the lack of analysis in Freedman’s article and elsewhere about the man in the Delta Goodrem costume, clearly hasn’t gained much traction. Indeed just this week a video was released of billionaire Richard Branson dressing as an air stewardess as punishment for a lost bet. Oh the humiliation of dressing as a woman and serving people, something his female employees do every day!

It’s disingenuous to insist that intent can or should be isolated from effect. When Branson minced along the aisle, people sniggered. When the four men in Voice judge costume walked into that party, who do you think got the biggest laugh?

It doesn’t matter if the intent isn’t to be offensive. When a member of a dominant group dresses up as a comical or hyper-sexualised representation of a marginalised group for entertainment or ridicule, it reinforces the power dynamics of colonisation. We cannot divorce these acts from their political context simply because we wish to. Whether we consider ourselves as personally holding oppressive views or not, the fact is that structural inequalities benefit certain groups at the expense of others.

To benefit from privilege does not require intent, it happens by default. So why are we so indignant in the face of criticism about behaviours and attitudes that reinforce inequality? Is it really so hard to accept that the offensiveness of an act is determined by those at whom the mockery is aimed? Why, when those who are show us how it hurts them, do we get defensive about our right to joke about, ridicule or appropriate members of a marginalised group for entertainment? Of all the funny things in the world, why the reticence to let go of humour and entertainment which relies on mocking and degrading others? If it really was ‘just a joke’ or ‘just a costume’ surely we wouldn’t care so much about letting it go. Instead we passionately defend our right to appropriate freely express ourselves in fun and ironic ways.

Here’s the kicker. You don’t have to be a racist in order to participate in or benefit from racism. It’s possible to be a good person and have good intentions and still behave in ways that are pretty ordinary.

Like everyone else in Australia I have been socialised in a community that espouses multiculturalism as a smorgasbord of other cultures for us to ‘enjoy’. I’ve been to Bollywood themed parties. I’ve caught myself gushing about the variety of cuisines available in Melbourne as though frequenting a local ‘ethnic’ eatery is some kind of free-pass to tolerance. Heck, I even graduated from university with a major in Asian philosophy despite not being able to read a word of the original languages.

I don’t pretend to be immune to this kind of cultural thinking. Having been called out myself on things I thought were harmless but have inadvertently caused distress to others, I’m happy to report that it’s ok to put down the boot polish. Our personal freedoms won’t come to an end. The “term” racism won’t be diluted or “rendered meaningless”, much less the real thing and the world is unlikely to go batshit crazy with political correctness.

That blackface is harmless fun to white people is the entire point. Once we move past the instinctive defensiveness and critically examine the politics of power that are represented by caricatures and stereotypes, we can’t fail to see that they actually reinforce the very imbalance they claim to parody. In this context, is it really too much to ask to let them go?

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2 thoughts on “Should Australia Lighten-up on Blackface?

  1. The Delta Goodrem ‘re-tweet’ wasn’t ‘fun racism’ – it wasn’t racism at all. There was no discrimination, there was no derogatory terminology, there was no prejudice or inequality. It was the re-tweeting of a photograph that depicted the four ‘The Voice’ judges.

    In this photograph, one male was dressed as Delta Goodrem [was that sexist?], one was dressed as Ricky Martin [was that homophobic?], one was dressed as Keith Urban [was that denigrating?] and one was, of course, dressed as Seal [questions need not apply – the left labelled it as ‘racist’ without deliberation].

    The depiction of Seal was that of impersonation. It was a specific individual represented, not a characterisation of a racial group. The context of the photograph was blatant – those dressed up were imitating ‘The Voice’ judges. There was no enmity or animosity. But hey – the left doesn’t really care about ‘logic’ – anything to confront ‘evil whites’ about racism, which, in this context at least, wasn’t even there.

    Thanks to ‘comedians’ such as Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussain, the term ‘racist’ or ‘racism’ is utilised so frequently that it de-legitimises the meaning of the word. This is a disservice to civil rights activists who have fought to repel discrimination and hatred. I have no doubt that these advocates would be repulsed by the fact that modern day socialists utilise ‘racism’ as some form of political tool to target another racial group – whites.

    The Jim Crow laws were racist. Saudi Arabia not illegalising slavery until 1962 was racist [I guess we should ignore that, though – after all, only ‘whites’ can be racist]. Governmental policies toward the Indigenous community have been – you guessed it – legitimately racist.

    Delta Goodrem re-tweeting a photograph of one of four people dressed as Seal is not racist. The left has perpetrated it as racist through utilising cynicism and rhetoric to end debate and impose some kind of social message. What they do not know is that by targeting trivial events, you are being detrimental to your own, important cause.

    It is this cynicism and rhetoric – for example, disregarding the definition of ‘black face’ because of its [legitimate source] – discredits your cause. I need not repeat the definition of black face, as it might embarrass you. As you might now know [although, I guess not] the Seal incident wasn’t ‘black face’, either.

    I do not condone racism. I myself am Jewish. I guess you didn’t know Mia Freedman is Jewish too, eh? Are you anti-Semitic? Should I report this article for anti-Semitism for criticising her?

    Muslims in Burma are currently being expelled, assaulted and murdered. Indigenous communities in the NT are living in third-world conditions; but let us draw our attention away from these to focus on a C-grade celebrity re-tweeting a photograph. Oh, for shame, Ms. Winterfox, for shame.

    Your article is insightful and well-written and certainly promotes debate. It is, however, misinformed.

    I also notice you make note of saying ‘white’ a lot – labelling people, denigrating people, somehow attributing racism to a race.

    Maybe you should give this a read:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/05/15/a-fascinating-map-of-the-worlds-most-and-least-racially-tolerant-countries/

    Oh, crud! White countries are the least racist? Quick, I better do something to legitimise my position!

    “It doesn’t matter if the intent isn’t to be offensive. When a member of a dominant group dresses up as a comical or hyper-sexualised representation of a marginalised group for entertainment or ridicule, it reinforces the power dynamics of colonisation.”

    Colonisation? Colonisation! Let’s bring the argument away from the re-tweeting of a photograph to an event that happened 225 years ago!

    Are you white, Ms. Winterfox? Were you ancestors white? Were they colonialists? Do you hate them because of the era and environment they, and millions of others, were raised in? Do you hate other whites because they played a part in colonisation? [Well, they… didn’t… but we’ll pretend they themselves did, to keep your failing argument afloat].

    You pose several questions toward the end of your article. I thought I would respond.

    “So why are we so indignant in the face of criticism about behaviours and attitudes that reinforce inequality?”

    Debate is good and I encourage criticism – nobody is doubting that; and racism exists in Australia [as it does in every country].

    But a photograph of IMPERSONATION does NOT reinforce inequality! It DOES NOT represent black people! It WAS NOT accompanied by a derogatory slur! It did NOT denigrate! It was an IMPERSONATION – of a SINGLE INDIVIDUAL (not a race)!

    “Is it really so hard to accept that the offensiveness of an act is determined by those at whom the mockery is aimed?”

    Huh, guess I better give Columbia Pictures a call regarding their 2004 motion picture, ‘White Chicks’, in which two black men posed as white girls for over an hour. But they were black people pretending to be – in denigrating caricature – white. But that’s okay – the left have already established that it’s fine to be racist toward ‘whites’. Which is precisely the flaw in your frankly flimsy argument.

    Was White Chicks racist? Why or why not? Why is it racist to pose as black, but not white?

    “Why, when those who are show us how it hurts them, do we get defensive about our right to joke about, ridicule or appropriate members of a marginalised group for entertainment?”

    I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard any complaint from any members of the black community. I haven’t heard any complaint from Seal. I have only heard complaint from leftists who continue to politicise ‘racism’ to push their own agenda – and it is actions like that which will result in the de-legitimisation of racism.

    “If it really was ‘just a joke’ or ‘just a costume’ surely we wouldn’t care so much about letting it go. Instead we passionately defend our right to appropriate freely express ourselves in fun and ironic ways.”

    I guess you socialists don’t comprehend the concept of ‘free speech’. And by the way, racism is not included in free speech. Racism denotes low intelligence. Racism denotes stupidity… but then again, so do incidents like this.

    “Here’s the kicker. You don’t have to be a racist in order to participate in or benefit from racism. It’s possible to be a good person and have good intentions and still behave in ways that are pretty ordinary.”

    Exactly. So was Delta an ‘accidental racist’? An ‘unintentional racist’? Perhaps it was just ignorance, instead of racism?

    I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again.

    Delta Goodrem isn’t racist.

    The National Socialists were racist.

    The Ku Klux Klan is racist.

    The NT Intervention policy was racist.

    Delta Goodrem re-tweeting a photograph was not racist.

    Undoubtedly, you will perhaps rebut this with facts about the importance of not ‘normalising’ racism; if you respond [or choose to post this] at all.

    Thank you for the debate. Thank you for an engaging article.

  2. “But I didn’t INTEND it that way” doesn’t mean ANYTHING!!! It also doesn’t matter or undo, change or lessen the impact of what was said.

    Remember when you were little, and your cousin/sister/neighbour punched you in the arm really hard, and then said to you “What? It didn’t even hurt!” And you thought to yourself “How would YOU know if it hurt or not!!!?” ?

    That.

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