These Dickheads Probably Still Think This Is Okay (And So Do Most of Their Mates)
Another week, another group of young Australians in blackface. It’s a regular enough occurrence for the outrage to be dulled; it’s not going to go viral, a panel of white people won’t discuss it on Sunrise. There’s a certain fatigue for this sort of dickhead behaviour: fury is replaced by disbelief that these guys could have missed the memo that this is not on. Perhaps they didn’t and just don’t give a shit.
It’s tiring to be outraged by this behaviour as often as it occurs. It’s outright exhausting to continually have to explain to people in our circles why blackface offends, but yet we continue to. To not make an effort to educate on the matter doesn’t make you as bad as the dickheads dressing up as African slaves, but does make you complicit in their ignorance, and the greater culture of indifference that fosters it.
This most recent outing occurred around the corner from where I grew up. I don’t know the guys involved, but the attitude is familiar. Growing up a brown boy among only of a handful of people of colour, attitudes to race were always laid bare when people had their backs against the wall in heated debate or physical conflict. The propensity of almost everybody to fall back on a racial epithet, You black cunt, or something similar, when I held the upper hand was something I experienced throughout my childhood. That was a go-to closing gambit for too many – identify the other and nullify whatever it was that they were attempting to be espoused.
Growing up surrounded by almost blanket homogeny, while being visibly different, was something that was only tenuously tolerated. Test that gracious acceptance a little and you were the nigga again.
The N word was similarly thrown around whenever someone was describing themselves or another being particularly tanned, or an individual was going through their gangster rap stage. It was a word thrown around not without meaning, but without any consideration for its history and implications. This doesn’t imply that I was surrounded by malicious racists, but by those who were consecutively hypersensitive of physical differences born of race, and entirely indifferent to the harm wrought by the prejudices that sensitivity could produce. A perfect environment for creating people who insist that they’re the least racist people around, while they painstakingly dye their skin brown to mock an entire race’s suffering.
Where I grew up, minimal exposure to others’ experience of race meant there was little impetus to develop empathy towards sensitivities surrounding the history of slavery and colonisation and the symbology associated with it. An inability to consider the effect these sort of jokes may have on anyone outside their closed circles is why these dickheads probably still think dressing in blackface is ok.
Not only was this particular outing a group effort – not one member of the brains’ trust behind the idea flagged it as a terrible – but the subject matter was particularly cruel. This isn’t an ill-thought-out homage to a sports star or pop idol of colour; they’re not misguidedly dressing like a character from a film or book who happens to be of a different race to them. This is an explicit attempt to mock the exploitation and suffering of countless victims of slavery executed with either indifference or malice towards the people still suffering its effects.
At best, it may be intended as a joke, in which case it’s not a particular clever or funny one. At worst, it’s reinforcing the idea that people of colour are less human than whites and are thus deserving only of serving them. In a group of this size, you’d be safe to assume that both reasonings went into the conceptualisation and execution of this fancy dress. Obviously neither is okay.
But dickheads are allowed to be dickheads. I do not seek to limit anybody’s right to freedom of expression, however repugnant it may be. Individuals and groups are allowed to express themselves however they see fit, no matter how odious and harmful it may be to others – restricting their right to display their disdain towards racial sensitivities will just drive them underground and harden the walls of their echo chamber. I do insist that when those rights are exercised like this they are met with a vociferous opposition, by everybody who is put out by the display. Calling this behaviour out whenever and wherever it arises hopefully informs the culprits that it’s not on, or if they are too incapable of empathy to get it, then I hope undecided onlookers might be swayed to consider the feelings of entire groups of people and be perceptive of ongoing inequality in a world still largely defined by the legacy of slavery and colonialism.
Apart from always being a black cunt in the eyes of your peers, people of colour are more likely to be incarcerated or killed by the state, have shorter life expectancies and lower educational outcomes than those with lighter skin. These are all ongoing effects of the systematic repression of darker skinned people around the world due to beliefs that they were less human. Blackface as a form of entertainment was based around those beliefs. Participating in it now, or standing idly around while others do, is perpetuating the ideology that enabled slavery, the stolen generations and all the genocides that accompanied European appropriation of native lands. Laughing about black suffering means you’re ok with it.
It’s important to take this moment to tell these dickheads again that this is not ok, and that if it’s a joke, it’s not a particularly funny one. I would suggest to them that the criticism levelled at them is worth listening to, and that if anything’s un-Australian, it’s using humour to punching down rather than taking the opportunity to hold power accountable. We can take fucken jokes, but they have to be funny ones, and bullying can’t be the punchline.
These dimwits aren’t worth naming and shaming, as their behaviour didn’t begin and end with them. This is merely symptomatic of a white Australia desperately trying to stick its head deeper into the comfortable sand we’ve built our suburbs on. Much of the world is slowly waking up to the ongoing inequality born of colonialism, and it’s not out of these guys’ scope to know that slavery isn’t funny, but it’s in their interest to ignore it.
Having empathy for people of colour, particularly those who previously lived on the land they’re now occupying, threatens the status quo that’s currently giving them an advantage. What they don’t realise is that instead of maintaining ignorance and maliciously making light of the plight of others, infusing their existence with a greater understanding of history of the world and Australia, and its ongoing influence, would immeasurably enrich their lives. Learning from their mistakes and admitting that they misjudged this one could be an opportunity for enlightenment.
This will not be the last time Australians dress in blackface and it also won’t be the last time we call them out. We’ve got some work to do as a nation to heal the wounds of the past and difficult conversations have to be had if we’re ever going to move forward together. The problem is at times like this the outrage only drives us to preach to the converted, and the dickheads involved and those capable of making the same mistakes are resistant to having their minds changed – especially by someone like me. After all, what would a black cunt know anyway?
Image via Instagram
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Ex-editor of Australia’s Surfing Life, current producer and host of 50 Fiestas, Barcelona resident and drinker of all the wine, every last drop of it.