What are we doing in blackface?

In the case of two young Ballarat men appearing on social media in blackface, and the inevitable outcry as to whether it was inappropriate, insensitive or ‘just a bit of fun’, it might be worthwhile to look back on some previous episodes of the practice in Australian history, both recent and historical, and reflect on why we think it’s funny. Or not.

Blackface: NSW Police mocking deaths in custody, 1992. Photo: ABC TV.

Blackface: NSW Police mocking deaths in custody, 1992. Photo: ABC TV.

Hey Hey It’s Saturday

A 2009 reunion episode of the popular program featured previous winners of the ‘Red Faces’ segment reprising their Jackson Five skit. Segment judge Harry Connick Jr was outraged and forced a begrudging apology from host Daryl Somers at the end of the program. Fellow judge Red Symons later commented  “Americans are offended by blackface. Australians are largely not. It’s culturally specific and we have no particular history in regard to minstrel shows and the portrayal of black people in these shows...”

Hey Hey It's Saturday, 2009

The Chaser Decides

Pre-dating the HHIS episode, ABC television satirists The Chaser decided blackface was the appropriate medium to deliver their critique of the similarities between political parties, again utilising the Jackson Five meme. Unlike the Channel Nine program, this seemed to fly well under the radar.

The Chaser Decides, 2007

The Bledisloe Cup

QANTAS was quick to apologise for encouraging two Rugby Unions fans to dress up as their football hero Radike Samo. The episode took place at the Bledisloe Cup match between Australia and New Zealand in 2011. The airline gave tickets to the match to the winner of a competition designed to show their support for the Wallabies, but later removed a picture of the men from its website and apologised.

The Footy Show

When Nicky Winmar refused to appear on the program in 1999, resident lampoonist Sam Newman took it upon himself to wear black makeup. He remained unrepentant.

Sam Newman impersonates Nicky Winmar, 1999. Photo: News Limited.

Sam Newman impersonates Nicky Winmar, 1999. Photo: News Limited.

Boney

New Zealand actor James Laurenson was brought in to play novelist Arthur Upfield’s famous Indigenous detective Napoleon Bonaparte when no local actors were deemed suitable for the role. This was despite the producers apparently scouring the country for a suitable ‘half-caste’.

NZ actor James Laurenson as Boney

Chris Lilley

Jonah from Tonga, Summer Heights High, Angry Boys... when does satire end and stereotyping begin? Comedian Chris Lilley pushes the envelope about as far as it can stretch, playing not only Islanders and Asians, but Asians playing indigenous Australians in a stage  – then showing actual Aboriginal actors leaving the theatre in disgust. Self referential? Much.

Chris Lilley, 'Indigeridoo', Lionel Rose.

King Billy Cokebottle

Enormously popular in some regions, white stand-up Louis Beers plays an Indigenous Elder with all the dignity of a broken toilet.

Louis Beers as King Billy Cokebottle

The Australian Tennis Open

Just last week, another two sports fans gave us their hilarious take on Serena Williams while attending the Open.

Fans of Serena Williams.

Fans of Serena Williams.

The NSW Police Force

1992, and police at a charity fundraiser in outback NSW let off a little steam by mocking two Aboriginal men who had died in police custody.

NSW police in private video, 1992.

Point made?

There’s plenty of intellectual discourse to be found on the internet about why we resort to impersonating other cultures, but specifically cultures consisting with people of darker skin colour. Ultimately, it appears to be about imposing our narrative over the top of someone else’s. It’s about power. We do it because we’re threatened, and the easiest way to counteract something threatening is to steal its voice and make it a caricature.

Most likely these young men had no intention of being racist. But they were careless and thoughtless. They played into an unthinking, easy stereoptype that denies complexity to a complex culture. It steals identity further from people already infinitely damaged by the violence inflicted in being colonised and marginalised.

It’s not funny.