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We Asked Some Australians to Define What’s Wrong With Blackface

Yesterday's controversy over blackface revealed how differently people define racism. We found that not many people in Melbourne agree either.

by Mariam Koslay
02 February 2016, 12:00am

Two idiots and their party costumes. Image via.

Yesterday, photos of two guys in brown makeup circulated the internet after they attended an "Australian Icons" themed party at Learmonth Football Club. The woman who shared the photo, an Indigenous education worker named Sis Austin, allegedly called the guys out as racists while other partygoers defended the costumes. As she wrote, "the individual and a group of this person's friends all stood up and argued that this is not racism and that 'Aboriginal people have it easier than everyone else in this country.'"

Since then rapper and VICE host Briggs has lent support to Sis Austin, writing on his own Facebook page, "Fuck these, dumb, redneck scumbags... anyone who wants to harass the person who originally called them out can direct all their attention to me."

Apparently there's some disagreement about what behaviour is and isn't racist. In fact, there seems to be some disagreement about what "racism" even means. We wanted to test what people consider racially vilifying, so we walked around Melbourne to find out. What we discovered was unexpected and a little bit scary.

Mike, 24

VICE: Hi Mike. Do you think two white guys dressing up in black face paint is racist?
I don't think it's that black and white, pardon the pun. Obviously some races cop a bit more shit than others and there's a bit of tension, especially around Australia Day and people calling it Invasion Day. I think that if my mates did it I'd think it's kind of funny as long as they weren't fuckheads about it. That's the main thing; don't be a fuckhead about it.

Do you feel the same about dressing up as any minority?
I don't think it would be as racist to go to a fancy dress party as a Chinese rice picker with the big hat, but I can see how it would get on some people's nerves.

Do you think Australia is a racist country?
Yes and no. I mean you can meet a lot of people in a lot of different circles who aren't racist and who are very open minded. You can't just say Australia is a racist country. It's not that simple. But there is a lot of racism in Australia.

But doesn't that translate to a racist country?
Not to the extent of what people in the United States experience. In Australia we're quietly racist. People have their views but they don't throw them out there.

Noora, 27

Hi Noora, do you think a white person can dress up as a black person?
Everyone has the right to do what they want. That includes dressing up how they want to. It's their choice and it's not racist.

What's worse, silent racism or overt racism?
When someone tells you they don't like you, you can talk to that person but when you keep it inside it's bad. However most people are like this, even in Saudi Arabia, they won't tell you how they feel and they keep it to themselves.

Have you ever been racially abused here?
I haven't been here long but some of my friends have been verbally attacked on the train because of the way we cover ourselves. Back in our country, Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim and Muslim people work, eat together, and live their life. But here, people don't understand things but talk anyway. People first need to understand before they speak.

William, 30

Hi William. What do you classify as racism?
Verbal abuse. It's not just dressing up as another race or culture.

So blackface isn't racist?
No.

Have you ever been abused in a racist way?
Yeah. It happened on a tram with my girlfriend. This guy was calling me "curry muncher, motherfucker, nigger"—it was full on. It even got violent and the guy was a Maori. It can be anyone, just anyone who lives here.

Do you think we're a racist country?
There are individuals here who are racist. But people forget that racism and racial abuse doesn't come from "white Australians" but also from other migrant communities.

Joe, 24

Hey Joe, where does racism come from?
Sometimes people aren't intentionally racist but the environment they've been brought up in encourages racism. It can also be derived from fear. They don't want to make the effort to integrate. An intolerance towards the unknown.

Those two guys on the net yesterday, do you think their costumes were racist?
I think they came across as racist, but I don't they intended to be offensive.

Should we cut them some slack if it was unintentional?
Some close friends might refer to each other with racial slurs in a friendly way. They might have thought they could get away with it under that category but I would say it's probably best to not do it again.

Vittoria, 22

Hey Vittoria, how do you see race?
I feel like race is becoming more and more irrelevant. I feel like it's more about your personal story and who you are. I think racism is about grouping people in a negative way because there are definitely positive associations with race as well.

So these guys yesterday, how do we know if their intentions were good or bad?
I guess you don't. I don't see anything harmful in dressing up as other cultures. I think we've been doing that for a really, really long time. People are too sensitive. You have to have some flexibility.

Do you think Australia is too PC?
Yeah, I absolutely do. I'm finding it quite boring. People look at someone else and say oh my god you're being immoral or you're being politically incorrect. It's almost a trend. It's almost like we've become a nanny state but sometimes we need to be able to laugh at ourselves and take a joke, which has always been what Australians are good at.

But surely in this case the blackface thing is racially vilifying?
You see, I do agree with that and it's fucking terrible. The thing is, and I'm not saying this to make it okay, but it did happen a long time ago and we've developed since then. However, I do think a lot needs to be changed about Aboriginal people in our society.

Amy, 27

Is blackface racist?
Yeah, I think this sort of thing is racist. White people are the people who destroyed their culture, their identity, and even their colour.

Do you think Australia is a racist country?
It absolutely is. I personally experience racism on a daily basis. The way Aboriginals are marginalised is racism. The way some Australians treat asylum seekers is racism. How are we not?

Do you think white people can talk about racism?
Well if you're a white person, how are you going to know or experience racism? At the end of the day it's freedom of speech to voice your opinion, but it's not a reality.

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