“Blackface” In Australia: What’s Going On Down Under?

Published on May 31st, 2013 By Tamara Vogl

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Last week Australian blogs and news outlets were buzzing briefly over a controversial issue: blackface.

Local The Voice judge, Delta Goodrem, retweeted a photo of four young men dressed up as her and her fellow coaches, citing it as “hilarious.” One man was dressed up in black makeup as Seal.

Fear Of A Brown Planet comedian Nazeem Hussein replied to Delta, saying “Nah, blackface isn’t hilarious, Delta. It’s racist.”

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The issue has now died down in the media but it’s a contentious one within the Australian sphere. This isn’t the first time blackface has been a point of scrutiny within Australian media.

Back in 1999, shock jock Sam Newman sent up Indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar by controversially doing a blackface routine on The AFL Footy Show.

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In 2009 the most innocuous of shows, Hey Hey It’s Saturday, caused worldwide headlines after a now-infamous reprise of a 20-year-old segment and its send up of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 in blackface.

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But why does this keep on reoccurring?

Australia’s racial history differs from America. We’ve never acknowledged slavery and the roots of minstrelsy did not begin here. Does this mean we’re less politically correct because race never played as big an acknowledged role in our history? Or are we not overly sensitive because at the end of the day, we know it’s a harmless joke?

In saying that, Australia had biological absorption as one of our official methods for “sorting out the Indigenous problem” in the early 20th century. This meant many Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents and assimilated within ‘white’ culture and ethnically ‘pured’ by being made to sleep with white partners. While many Australians would think we live in a “post-race” society, our tainted history has never been adequately addressed. Many Australians don’t understand the severity of biological absorption and even less, understand its classification as ethnocide by the United Nations. It was only in 2008 that an Australian Prime Minister formally apologized for the wrong doings of our forefathers against the first people of this land.

In the three cases I’ve listed, blackface was used as a parody of a real person. The defense therein lies in the art of imitation or representation. Is it blackface if the makeup is not being used to stereotype and send up ‘blackness’ in general? Or is it simply a vehicle to more accurately represent the people they are trying to imitate?

All three cases offended many different people across broader sections of Australian society, even if the intentions weren’t racist. It should come as no surprise that you don’t have to be racist to do something racist. With issues like this, intention always seems to appear at the forefront of the defense.

Since the flurry of angry tweets directed at her since the incident, Delta Goodrem has tried to distance herself as much as possible from her comments. She has since stated, “In reference to a parody of the four coaches that was on Twitter, my re-tweeting was not intended to cause offense in any way.”

Do I think she is racist? No. Do I think what she did was racist? Yes.

Delta laughed at a white man in blackface. At its core, that is what minstrelsy is. Her intentions are irrelevant. It was clear she was probably laughing at all four men dressed up as the coaches, however someone in her position should know better than to retweet a photo that is likely to cause offense.

Many have come to Delta’s defense claiming anger should be directed to the man dressed in blackface. While this is true, it’s a bad way to deflect responsibility from media personalities and the responsibilities they have in their representation of their views. The reason this should be an issue is because Delta is a prominent figure and is considered a role model for many Australians, particularly young ones.

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