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.

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?