I’m a little late to the Nic Naitanui ‘blackface’ debate, but it’s been playing on my mind for days, so I need to get it off my chest.
When the story broke, I wanted to express my confusion over the controversy, but I held my tongue through fear of being attacked.
That’s made me realise we have a problem and it’s not just “blackface.”
It’s also the way we discuss racism.
Actually, make that the way we don’t discuss racism other than in a high-minded fashion.
Everyone has become too damn scared to ask questions because they’ve seen what happens if people say the “wrong” thing: it’s like they’ve been thrown into a tub of pirahnas and eaten alive.
I’ve been on this earth for almost 49 years. I’ve worked in the media for more than 20 of those years. Yet I’m a little befuddled by the parameters and enduring pain of blackface thing. If I’m befuddled and wishing I could ask a few questions – without being eaten alive – I’m betting a lot of other people are too.
Wikipedia tells me: “Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture … Stereotyped blackface characters developed: buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious characters, who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language. Early blackface minstrels were all male, so cross-dressing white men also played black women who were often portrayed as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish, in the matronly mammy mold, or as highly sexually provocative.”
“It quickly became popular elsewhere, particularly so in Britain, where the tradition lasted longer than in the US, occurring on primetime TV, most famously in The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978.”
I vaguely remember watching The Black and White Minstrel Show.
What was THAT all about?
Anyone younger than 45 is going to have NO IDEA …
But let’s fast forward to the Perth mum who painted her son’s skin brown because he wanted to look like his idol, AFL footballer Nic Naitanui, for Book Week.
[Side note: I’m with Grant Webb, president of Australian Literacy Educators’ Association, who said the parade was supposed to celebrate books and reading.]
“He was idolising his hero, and loved it. And it’s been twisted into me being racist,” the mum told Daily Mail Australia.
“Everyone needs to realise that who is affected here is a nine-year-old boy who wanted to be his hero for one day.”
Nervous confession: I think the sentiment is lovely and I hate to think what the controversy has done to the poor little bloke.
Then Nic Naitanui spoke out saying: “The young bloods innocence merely attempting to emulate his hero hurts my heart. Especially when that hero is me! It’s a shame racism coexists in an environment where our children should be nurtured not tortured because they are unaware of the painful historical significance ‘blackface’ has had previously on the oppressed.”
OK, here’s where I need some help: why does a boy “attempting to emulate his hero” hurt Nic’s heart?
I’m not saying that to be controversial. I genuinely want to know more about the pain it’s caused Nic so I can explain it to my kids if they ask.
Kids learn racism, they’re not born like that. The little boy in Perth didn’t think Nic was a lesser man because he had brown skin. He just thought he was the most awesome football player he’d ever seen.
And what are the exact rules around how the kid should have dressed for Book Week (other than sticking with a character from an actual book)? Is it just skin colour that’s the problem? Is it ok to wear a wig that emulates Nic’s hair? Or is that racist too?
I know dressing up as a Native American Indian is no longer acceptable, which is a pity because I think the headdresses and jewellery are amazing.
And I vaguely recall some guys in a sports team getting into trouble for dressing up as Indians.
So is all ethnic/race related dress up wrong?
How do we draw the line between homage and racism? Or do we ban the lot?
A few people in my Facebook feed have spoken out about their confusion on this issue.
An Aboriginal mother shared a photo of her daughter with her face painted white for Book Week to highlight what she says is hypocrisy.
“Unfortunately now this little boy who has been shown by the dark skinned community that his admiration for a black man is unacceptable and has learnt racism,” she wrote.
Another person wrote: “he wore that colour with pride not racism..I honestly couldn’t see a racist redneck letting their kid do what he has done could you…pffft”
Another said: “we could all learn from our children. He sees nothing wrong with it and neither do i.. what if i wore a red afro wig cos my hero was carrot top.. does that make me racist…we have to stop dividing our colours.. life is not a fucking washing machine”
Redheads aren’t a race … but there IS a lot of mean-spiritedness towards them. Someone even invented “Kick a Ginger Day.”
Fortunately, other than being nicknamed House on Fire and feeling ugly as a kid because of my pale skin, I’ve avoided that poisonous chalice.
And it’s NOTHING compared to the discrimination based on race that so many people experience.
It’s such a tricky one.
Any insights would be most welcome.
Taking a deep breathe and pressing publish …
Song of the day: Michael Jackson “Black or White”