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A Short History of Australians Learning to Not Do Blackface

Here's all the recent times we embarrassed ourselves and then did it again.

by Katherine Gillespie
02 February 2016, 9:07am

The Hey Hey It's Saturday incident of 2009. Image via.

Here we are again. For some baffling reason, Australia still has a community of people who haven't noticed that blackface costumes are no longer okay. What might have been socially acceptable among the subtly racist 20 years ago, is now—thankfully—understood by the vast majority to be totally insensitive. Like a dog that's partial to shitting in the house but knows that such behaviour is frowned upon, Australians have mostly trained ourselves to not dress up in black face paint. But mostly is the operative word.

Yesterday a Victorian education worker, Sis Austin, shared a photo of two guys at a party dressed as Indigenous Australians. The men were supposedly at a Saturday night party held at the Learmonth Football Club in Victoria. In her caption, Austin pointed out that the costumes were culturally insensitive, only for her friends to leap to the defence of the men in blackface.

The whole episode caught fire across social media, attracting the ire of singer Thelma Plum and Yorta Yorta rapper Briggs, who labelled the men as "redneck scumbags." Unfortunately, this is only the latest in a series of incidents that prove Australians still don't properly grasp why blackface is a bad idea.

The most notorious example of Australian blackface controversy in recent memory is, of course, the Jackson JiveHey Hey It's Saturday incident of 2009. The reunion special featured a group of men in blackface performing an exaggerated Jackson Five routine, complete with minstrel-style theatrics. Worse still, it was actually their second appearance on the show. They'd performed the same routine 20 years earlier back in 1989.

Perplexed guest judge Harry Connick Jr was forced to gracefully explain to viewers why he had found the blackface minstrel skit so offensive, while host Daryl Somers played the incident down as an example of cultural differences between Australia and the United States. At the end of the episode Somers apologised for offending Connick Jr, although not for offending viewers or African Americans.

We'd seen it all before. Ten years earlier, Sam Newman appeared on The Footy Show in blackface after Indigenous player Nicky Winmar cancelled an appearance on the show. This incident was especially potent given Winmar had faced several incidences of racial vilification over the course of his career.

In 1993 he and his St Kilda teammate Gilbert McAdam withstood racist taunts from an aggressive Collingwood crowd in Victoria Park. Following a St Kilda victory, Winmar faced the crowd while pulling up his shirt and pointing to his skin. A photograph of the incident made front pages of newspapers the next day, and is now one of the most iconic images in Australian sport. Apparently, this wasn't enough to stop Newman caricaturing the player on national television just six years later.

If the internet in 1999 was more like it is now, Newman would have come under a lot more fire for his actions. Indeed, the Hey Hey It's Saturday's Jackson Jive performance that took place ten years afterwards was criticised by sites like Gawker, and made international headlines on sites around the globe.

We're getting better at calling this stuff out, but it's still happening. Just ask Olivia Mahon, whose African themed 21st party went viral when screenshots from a public Facebook photo album revealed several instances of blackface. That same year, Delta Goodrem was forced to distance herself from a photo she'd retweeted of The Voice fans dressing up as their favourite judges, including Seal, whose race was referenced with black body paint.

Most recently, at the Australian Open last month, a Serena Williams supporter (holding a large "Keep Calm and Be Serena" sign for the cameras) wore blackface to her tennis idol's semi-final match. Even as a die hard fan, she'd got it wrong.

Of course the disquieting thing about these incidents is their total ignorance. Time and time again, it seems Australians simply don't get how offensive racial caricaturing is, and assume that a lack of malicious intent is enough of a defence. A tip for any readers in danger of becoming a social media fatality, it isn't.

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