Too scared to speak

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”





16 thoughts on “Too scared to speak

Add yours

  1. …and there we all were in 1974-5 doing a Black & White Minstrel Show at KHS!
    It wasn’t about racism then, it was about singing and dancing. Our family would sit together on Sunday nights watching, and singing along with, the Black & White Minstrel Show.
    NOW I understand the history of “blackface” and realise the hurt it caused, however this Perth kid and his mother have done this in tribute to Nic, not as an insult, and should be left alone.

  2. Ooops … that’s the first time I’ve been able to post a comment. Just realised that if I didn’t include my website it publishes instantly. D’oh.

    I’m with you – I have no idea how to navigate this whole issue, but I just wanted to say: 1. Back in the early ’80s, we were studying indigenous Australian culture at school and my entire grade three class dressed up as indigenous Australians complete with blackface, black wigs and black leotards and performed with cardboard painted didgeridoos (I have the rather interesting photo to prove it). 2. Dress-ups for Book Week should only ever be about characters from books. I have no idea why parents don’t challenge their kids when they want to dress up as a licensed character from the latest movie. So many amazing books… so many easy cop-outs.

  3. Oh, and my primary school’s annual production in 1984 was the Black and White Minstrel Show. I shit you not. For some bizarre reason, I performed ballet to Send in the Clowns, while another girl lip-synced in blackface.

  4. Well said, Alana. My children don’t see race or colour in the way I learnt it and I am sure that boy was just emulating his hero. In some ways I wish we all could move on from the historical hang ups that exist, such as black-face, and reclaim them in a positive, inclusive way. But I know from my own beliefs that it isn’t always easy. As a feminist, I still find it annoying that forms state “gender” rather than “sex” when defining whether you are male or female. Considering how much effort was put in to disputing biological determinism and discussing gender roles as socially constructed it irks me. Perhaps it is just a matter of time……

    1. Thanks Roz. You’re right, none of it is easy. But I’d prefer a world where all that sort of stuff can be talked about without the fear of being torn to shreds.

      1. Absolutely! I am all for open communication, compassion and tolerance. So easy to say, much harder to do with all our baggage, egos etc. Keep at it, Alana. Your message is a great one.

  5. I was pretty surprised to discover that after it ended, The Black & White Minstrel Show survived as a touring performance group.


    Whether the blackface is a tribute or not – the guy in question said it was probably not malicious, *but* that he also didn’t understand how it could still be construed as OK. How many times have there been people in blackface in the media being hauled over the coals of late? Hell, I reckon most people would remember the Hey Hey It’s Saturday reaction of Harry Connick Jr, to a Red Faces skit done in blackface. He grew up in the South, and it hit home for him – he was disgusted and basically had to be talked down from flying out of the country as a result. And he was offended as a white guy: I can only imagine how it might’ve gone had Sam Jackson been on the panel.

    In the same way that nobody would play ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ these days (where “Hey! Steady on, Sambo!” was part of the witty banter), or ‘Mind Your Language’ these days because they’re recognised as being on the nose, we should be reaching that point with blackface. Enough people have said it’s a shit look, and offensive to their history that we should probably pay attention. It hurts the heart for the same reason calling Adam Goodes an ape or throwing a banana at Eddie Betts hurts – it is a slight on the identity. And hell, in the history of white people blacking up, how many of the stereotypes mined have been positive? Not many.

    (As an aside, today I watched a movie in which Walter Matthau was dressed as an extremely unconvincing Indian guy. What might’ve passed in 1980 was distinctly what-the-shit today.)

    I think that, like feminism and dudes, it’s important for individuals to recognise that caucasians have a different starting point in society to people of colour, wherever they come from. The problem is us whiteys have shitty lives too, compared to someone else – there’s always someone richer, or someone getting a comparative leg-up that you mightn’t be, for example – but that doesn’t negate the fact that we’re starting the race from way further ahead than other people. I’m a white, middle class, straight, educated guy: I’m further ahead than a lot of people, even women who are my contemporaries and equals (or better!) by dint of being lucky enough to be born a white person with a wang.

    (Ugh. There’s an image.)

    The problem is that a lot of commentary, however well-intentioned, comes from a position of privilege. The one about not seeing colour you mention in the post – yeah, that’s fine, but it’s also something that’s more likely to be held by someone who’s never been affected by their colour. And I’d lay money on the fact that they’re either caucasian, or appear thus.

    I didn’t get that when I was younger, because everyone has a degree of solipsism that’s really difficult to get outside of. And it’s particularly hard as we get older – there’s that relative everyone has who says shit that’s beyond the pale even for the most anti-PC mob – because fuck it, they’re set in their ways.

    The problem is that if everyone’s set in their ways, and if those ways contain ingrained behaviours that’re offensive to people (even if *you* don’t think they are, or that people are just being PC or whatever) then nothing changes.

    I don’t think anyone looking for actual coming together of blackfella/whitefella Australia would be pissed off at someone who openly expressed their recognition of the problems involved, as well as copping to the fact that there’s shit they don’t know. Like many people my age, I know next to fuck-all about indigenous history outside of a couple of large moments, and for me that’s a real point of embarrassment. I *want* to learn. And in my experience, people’ll give you any information you desire – how did this happen? why is this an issue? what do YOU want to happen? – if they’re engaged in conversation.

    Related reading: an excerpt from artist Marina Abramovic’s diary, written when she was in the outback, years ago, was pretty harsh on Aboriginal people. Here, an Aboriginal artist who lived at the Kaldor Project Abramovic curated last year, responds to the writing – and makes some points worth considering regarding colour, interpretation, and the structure of society in Australia. Particularly this:

    “Marina Abramovic is a major public figure, but other than that, she is not special. She is just another white person who has never had to think too hard about a lot of things because that’s how our culture operates. She is another white person who is casually entitled and ignorant of their own privilege and the machinations of structural opression. I deal with ten of her a day. So does every other non-white person living in white dominated society. If I wasted breath responding to every one of them I’d suffocate. That’s why I have that conversation through my work.”

    I’d like to think “don’t be a dick” would be enough instruction for the world, but it seems it’s not.

    1. Wow, thanks Luke. That’s been quite the education. While memes can drive me batty, I’ve always quite liked the one that says “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind.”

  6. Actually, this is a great start on the privilege thing. Well worth a read.

    “If you read through the rest of the list, you can see how white people and people of color experience the world in two very different ways. BUT LISTEN: This is not said to make white people feel guilty about their privilege. It’s not your fault you were born with white skin and experience these privileges. BUT, whether you realize it or not, you DO benefit from it, and it IS your fault if you don’t maintain awareness of that fact.”

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