Sometime last week, a Mum from Perth, Western Australia dressed her young son up as his hero, Nic Naitanui, complete with blackface. Naitanui is a brilliant athlete who is the star player in one of the Australian Football League teams from this town. Feeling pumped, she posted this comment and photo on blogger Constance Hall’s Facebook page in the comments section:
Constance Hall removed it rapidly, and posted what I thought to be a very conciliatory and open-hearted response to said Mother. The whole thing went viral and Hall was promptly harassed to the point of emotional breakdown by this Mum’s family; these nice people chucked in a few death threats for good measure.
There is so much to break down here, I don’t even know where to begin, so I’m just going to begin with this.
GODDAMNIT!!!! REALLY????? FUCK’S SAKE!!!!!!
Ok. With that out of the way, let’s really break this shit down into its composite parts. Starting with blackface.
Full disclosure, it’s apparent from the sidebar, I’m not black. I don’t claim to know how millions of different black people feel. I do know that many of them are survivors of significant historical, intergenerational trauma. They’re also still expected to function within a system that was literally built upon oppressing, dispossessing and exploiting them, and that continues to do so.
As someone with at least some empathy and some historical knowledge let me put to you all like this. For many years, for pretty much all the years up till now, our Western societies have organised themselves around a hierarchy that has gone something like this:
- White Christian men.
- Other White men.
- White Christian women.
- Other White women.
- Everyone else.
- Black people.
Blackface and its history has its origins in the USA. Minstrel shows and blackface began in the 19th century and popularised the notion of “the dandified coon” and “the happy-go-luck darky” and were very successful with audiences at the time. A time where in many places slavery was still happening, then where segregation was endemic and certainly where the notion of universal civil rights was embryonic. Where the hegemonic white majority made significant economic gain from imperial economic policy and racist domestic economic policy. It just wasn’t super pleasant round about then to be Black in the USA. I think we can all agree on that.
Why Blackface was super soothing and totally hilarious
Now you don’t have to be Freud to realise that the popularity of these performative stereotypes stemmed from some kind of unease or guilt at the way (white) man was treating his fellow (black) man (and woman). These stereotypes literally originated as a response to the White Person’s Guilt of the time. What better way to assuage said guilt than to watch and adore white performers creating and perpetuating exaggerated, blacked-up caricatures who were nothing like, you know, actual black people? You could laugh at them, you could laugh with them, you could feel sad for them…all without having to connect what you were feeling with any actual black people. #19th&20thCenturyRacistWinning. Those caricatures’ function was to soothe any needling ethical qualms the audience held. And you know those audiences felt those qualms deep down in places they didn’t like to interrogate.
And the kicker- you got to feel superior. Those caricatures let you as a white person feel superior in every possible way.
Blackface wasn’t just popular in the USA, it was popular in Britain too, and I would suggest, in any and every Western society which organised itself around the notion that Whiteness was innately superior to Blackness. For the same, soothing reasons. That includes Australia.
Aussie Aussie Aussie
We’ve had our own issues with this sort of thing in Australia. I submit we enjoyed blackface for the exact same reasons as the rest of the Western world; after all we have our own long and storied history of racist government policy. These policies both rise up from the people and then their effects trickle back down into us, like some horrific never-ending re-uptake loop. The intergenerational trauma amongst those on the receiving end of those policies and then by extension, everyone else, is clearly still being felt.
Ask yourself why those officers were dressed as the Aboriginal, Mr Boney, who “hung himself”. I mean, what a brutal thing to do. What could be motivating them? I understand that they felt impunity, that they felt empowered by their position as the arbiters of power, I understand that they (wrongly as it turned out) felt they wouldn’t be sanctioned. But WHY were they motivated to do this in the first place?
They did this to make Mr Boney a joke. To lessen his humanity. To make their complicity feel less onerous. To soothe their own guilt. To justify their own racist, violent tendencies. Jokes, mate, jokes.
When you belittle the history of blackface and insist it’s no big deal, when you desperately try to convince yourself that we really are all equal in terms of our access to wealth, privilege and opportunity, and so “Who cares? It’s just face paint”, what you are doing is ignoring this shame, this ignominy, ignoring this long history of abuse.
And then, of course, nothing has to change. Nothing changes.
Now, I’ve heard too many people assert over the past week that the boy was dressing as his idol and therefore this blackface wasn’t racist. This was a benign blackface, because the kid adores Naitanui. To which I say:
I would suggest that another reason black people find blackface to be abhorrent is because it represents versions of themselves that are in no way authentic. At its heart blackface is an attempt by white people to define and then appropriate blackness. The stereotype of a happy black fool, or a natty black with “swag”, or a brilliant black entertainer, or…you know…a gifted black athlete: these are all tropes. All of these blackface stereotypes serve the same function and whether we white people can see that function, is not the point. They function to perpetuate our inherited, undeserved privilege. They function to make us feel better about it.
It’s about context. White people have traditionally had all the money, all the power, made all the rules and set all the standards. If you think that is over and done with…wake up. See the incarceration rates of Indigenous and black people in Western societies. Have a look at their mortality rates, infant and otherwise, their educational outcomes, their economic opportunities. Literally every modern measure will show you massive gaps between these communities and white people. Those gaps are not there because of white superiority. They are there because of historical white supremacy.
Just don’t do it
So when you as a white person, start impersonating a black person, whether gifted or otherwise, you are kicking hard. You, with all your inherited privilege, with all of your unearned advantage are explicitly saying that everything, even black excellence, it can all be ours. Never, uniquely, wholly and solely theirs.
JUST DON’T DO BLACKFACE.
And while I’m at it.
YOU ARE NOT SOME POLITICALLY INCORRECT MAVERICK.
Congratulating yourself for “growing a set of balls” and defying the “politically correct extremists” by blackfacing your kid (who won the parade, I genuinely worry about the teachers at that school and how little history they know) exposes you as someone with hardly any racial consciousness, not much education and very little empathy.
Repeat after me, political correctness is not being awful.
If being a politically correct extremist means I am extremely not awful then:
Get behind it
There are a whole lot of language and behaviours keeping the hierarchy illustrated above in its place. We have all suffered in our own disparate ways from the effects of that hierarchy. Political correctness is the workaday expression of the idea that we are all born equal. We should all have the same access to opportunity. Political correctness is the expression of the attempt to change this hierarchy. To make things more equal and fair. Politically correct speech tries to police this change. Stop objecting to this policing, you are not being a rebel, you are acting against your own interest. Get behind the reason for the change, the reason for political correctness, because it’s in everyone’s interest.
Politically incorrect speech: “Leave this place of power where people get to make important decisions, you racist/sexist epithet!”
Politically correct response: “You leave, I have as much right to be here as you!”
Get behind it people.
In summation, it seems easy to me. Shouldn’t we always listen to the people who say they are justifiably hurt by all of this, and you know, NOT DO IT? Does it hurt you not to blackface yourself or anyone else?
I leave you with this.
“Racism oppresses its victims, but also binds the oppressors, who sear their consciences with more and more lies until they become prisoners of those lies. They cannot face the truth of human equality because it reveals the horror of the injustices they commit.”- Alveda King