There’s a reason why instances of blackface reoccur. We’re racist, and we’re operating on what our parents taught us – and I’m no different.
This morning, headlines were made when the least-likeliest candidate for racial douchebaggery was outed, with images of Justin Trudeau in brownface emerging on the internet. It’s problematic and certainly racist, and it illuminates the entitlement in our Anglo-Saxon thinking.
Exclusive: Justin Trudeau wore brownface at 2001 ‘Arabian Nights’ party while he taught at a private school, Canada’s Liberal Party admits https://t.co/j3UobfYNIF
— TIME (@TIME) September 18, 2019
It also reminded me of Australia and the same problem we possess. While our Prime Minister didn’t wear paint on his face, he does own a statue in his office, congratulating himself for stopping brown people who attempt to reach this nation by boat. As a nation, we have a problem with accepting our racism. When something is decoded as racism, and as a result, we’re racist, we bristle at the suggestion and cry PC culture, and let slip the dogs of internet flame wars.
In 2018, the world shook its fist at us over a cartoon depicting Serena Williams. We claimed that it wasn’t racist. The Americans, the authors of Jim Crow, racial categorisation and the KKK said it was. Maybe it was a line ball decision. The cartoon could be in or out. This week, we’ve had a true-life depiction of the strip, as a Tasmanian football team honoured Serena in blackface for Mad Monday.
Now, the modern issue of blackface in this country is a particularly storied one. Back in August of 2018, St Marks College in Adelaide made the headlines with their garden party, a dress-up do with no limitations of who can come as what. Many decided to make with the paint and become Mel B, Flava Flav and/or Tiger Woods. Hey Hey it’s Saturday’s 2009 reboot was famously torn down by a tone-deaf Michael Jackson tribute band, Harry Connick Junior’s exasperation and Daryl Somers’ wobbling apologies. 2016 saw a parent blackface her child in support of AFL stud Nic Naitanui.
There’s a lot to pick from. Given the opportunity, we will do it, because we don’t see it being an issue.
It’s the last one that I empathise with. the child wanted to support his hero, the mother greenlit it, despite what the “politically correct extremists” might say on social media. Back in my primary school days, the annual mufti day was a favourite of ours, particularly my mother, who lived to plant a weed firmly up the backside of snobs. I did too, it was fun.
One year, I was dressed as a hobo, replete with a beer gut, which was a sofa cushion stuffed up the front of my shirt. She laughed, I laughed, but didn’t really understand why it was funny. The year after, I went as an aboriginal brandishing a broomstick spear, red speedos and black paint smeared into my derma. She laughed, I laughed, I was sent home. We never discussed why when I got home, I just retreated to my video games and enjoyed the day off.
That moment has come back to me, with the very recent discovery that I have a black ancestor. This recent knowledge that part of me grew here, not flew here, has forced me to examine my past. I was raised in a racist family, who was raised by a racist family. I didn’t know any aboriginals, I didn’t know that I was one.
At a young age, I was taught right from wrong through the usual easy racial epithets. I was advised to not put coins in my mouth, not because they were made of poisonous metal, but because they could have been up a chinaman’s bum. I was advised to not cross Tongans, as they’d do unspeakable things with a mop handle. I was told that I could marry anyone I wanted, but not an aboriginal. I was never told why. My mother could easily walk across gravel roads barefoot, because she had ‘boong feet’. Those who my family classified as wogs were pointed out. Those people over there, they were the wogs. Nothing bad was said about them, except that their cars were too loud, their hair too greasy, and their propensity for unreasonable violence was too noted in the evening news. They weren’t like me anyway, they had their own term. Over there were the wogs. Over here, we’ll stay. Repeating what I heard said, I told my nan that I didn’t agree with the “worthy” part of the “worthy oriental gentleman” backronym that held them, which made my father laugh. I was 11.
As a result, it was only until high school, a pot purri of colour and races, that I started to question the validity of what I knew. Even then, we segregated ourselves. We might be friends individually, but when the bell rung, we scattered into the set groups our parents formed us. The wogs, The surfers, The losers. You were either a ‘skippy’ or a ‘wog’. The quadrangle was split on those particular grounds, and both parties wore the negative label with pride. I vividly remember the solitary individual who pulled off a migration between the two. Between Year 7 and 8, he ditched his surfer roots and suddenly became “Assyrian”. We mocked him for his behaviour, primarily the betrayal we felt, as he stepped over these invisible walls we constructed. He did it to fit in with them, not us. In retrospect, Adam’s betrayal was a clue toward greater understanding, but we didn’t see it that way. Which was a shame, but it manifested in the way that teenage boys do – fear masked with bravado.
My point is that racism is ingrained in who we are, be it our everyday experience or our half-forgotten memories. It’s so deeply dug in that it’s easy to ignore. It’s forever there, but not there. Yet we bristle at the idea of it existing. It’s just a joke, It’s blown out of proportion, it’s tradition. We’re not racist. Or, it follows the easy language of my brother, who doesn’t discriminate, because he hates everyone equally. It might seem harmless, as it comes in the warm blanket of a joke or the familiar, but in reality is it the germination of a deeply rooted plant, its blooming scent masked by the complication of having your values challenged. So, the truth is masked by the siren of the PC-police you think you hear, therefore the great wave of unwashed migrants terrorising polite decent Australia seems like a real thing. The African gang crime wave is a prime example of this. England’s Moeen Ali being called “Osama” by our cricketers is the same issue as Pauline wearing a burqa in parliament.
This belief that racism comes from the top, and that cutting off the head will cure the headache, is an easy denial to fall into. The loud examples of racism are so obvious, they draw our focus. This is a mistake. We should also be focusing on our own.
Spoiler alert, we’re all racist, whatever our skin colour is, who our parents were.
Those who believe they have never wielded the brush of racism is either lying or not looking. We’re all guilty of racism, be it overt or passive. We need to recognise this, and we need to accept it. Like all destructive behaviours, we need to recognise the damage done, and move beyond it.
I can only speak for myself. I’m tearing down a quarter of my life, and all the things I thought I knew. As a result, I’m still unsure, and quite a bit scared. While I’m extremely proud of my heritage, I’m still confused as to what to do with it.
Conversely, I’m yet to breach all this with my mother, but hopefully, this piece represents the first step.