A Long, Sad History Of Australia’s Love Affair With Blackface

“Australia has a long history with this sort of whole performance of blackface.”

1. On Saturday, in the small country town of Ballarat in regional Victoria, two men thought it was perfectly acceptable to paint their entire bodies and faces black and pretend to be Aboriginal for an “Aussie Icons” party.

Sis Austin / Facebook.

The caricatures of stereotypical Aboriginal men were replete with faux-Aboriginal designs over their arms, chests, and faces.

Beers in hand, the men posed and smiled for photos that were later posted to Facebook by the person throwing the party.

“These two legends had the best costume last night, I reckon they nailed the ‘Australian Icon’ theme perfect, top stuff lads!” the host said.

What followed was a mixture of outrage from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community on social media followed by backlash from non-Indigenous Australians defending blackface.

3. Koorie rapper Briggs was furious and shared the picture. He publicly named and shamed the people involved, writing, “fuck these dumb, redneck scumbags. Anyone who wants to stick up for this kind of bullshit can swiftly go fuck themselves”.

Instagram.

4. Indigenous singer Thelma Plum did the same.

“Does anyone know who these two fucking gronks from Ballarat are?” she asked. “Disgusting little boys who think it’s okay to paint their white bodies black and mock my people.”

The backlash came thick and fast over Plum’s and Briggs’ public outrage.

“All about the blackfella aye? Take, take, take, how about they start giving back to the country that takes care of them?” one comment read.

Another said, “Get over it and move on with your life.”

“Thelma Plum, you are a fucking disgrace playing the victim card like the rest of your people, and then victimising people for self-gain,” read yet another. “Just a publicity stunt to get your name in the ring, well that backfired didn’t it! Disgusting.”

A group of people even decided to paint their faces black as a way of showing solidarity with the partygoers. Using the hashtag “we will black with you”, they put the picture on Instagram. It has since been removed.

5. Of course, this is far from the first time a blackface debate has raged in Australia. The cycle is always the same: blackface, backlash, then the backlash to the backlash.

A man blacks his face during the 1988 Bicentenary (Australian Daze documentary)

6. “Australia has a long history with this sort of whole performance of blackface,” University of Sydney associate professor Catriona Elder, an expert in Australian cultural identity and history, told BuzzFeed News.

Facebook.

American minstrel groups – troupes of men who performed songs and dances in blackface while pretending to be exaggerated versions of African-Americans – were extremely popular in Australia, Elder said.

“The whole blackface minstrel tours of Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century were very popular,” she said. “Then there’s a long history of white people playing Aboriginal characters in Australian theatre and early films. It wasn’t until Charles Chauvel’s film Jedda in 1955 that we actually saw Aboriginal people play Aboriginal people.”

While the practice of blackface for entertainment has died out in America, it continues to happen in Australia. Elder believes this is due in large part to the population difference between Indigenous Australians and African-Americans.

“Literally the demographic difference is between a large African-American minority population in the United States where the power of criticisms of a big group has a lot more power,” she said.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only make up 2–3% of the population. So in that sense, their voices are not heard as much when they do critique blackface.”

“It also means that lots of white people in Australia can go through life without thinking much or knowing much about what it means to be racist or do that type of performance.”

7. At the Australian Open last week, a fan of Serena Williams felt it appropriate to paint her face black and hold a sign that read “keep calm and be Serena”.

Twitter.

8. In 2015, Fox Sports journalist Briony Ingerson painted her face and body black at an African-themed party to celebrate the premier of the reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, which is set in Africa.

Instagram.

9. In 2011, Australia’s national airline, Qantas, came under fire for encouraging two men to attend the Bledisloe Cup game in Brisbane in blackface.

Twitter.
Twitter.

The men won a Qantas competition giving away tickets to the clash between Australia and New Zealand. The competition asked fans how they would show their support for the Wallabies.

Charles Butler promised he would dress as Fijian-born Wallaby Radike Samo.

Butler and a friend turned up to match wearing afro wigs and black facepaint. Qantas applauded their efforts on social media. After a backlash the airline apologised.

11. In 2009, Australia’s love of blacking up for entertainment caused controversy around the world and left American pop star Harry Connick Jr gobsmacked.

During a talent quest segment on one of Australia’s then most-popular programs, Hey Hey It’s Saturday, a group of white men painted themselves black and pretended to be the Jackson Five.

Connick couldn’t hold in his disgust.

“I just wanted to say on behalf of my country, I know it was done humorously but we’ve tried for so long not to make black people look like buffoons,” he told host Daryl Summers. “When we see something like that we really take it to heart.”

The clip made headlines in the United States and sparked another round of debate around the country.

14. One of the more sinister uses of blackface in recent history took place in 1992, when two police officers attended a charity ball as two dead Aboriginal men, Lloyd Boney and David Gundy.

ABC.

 

Boney had been found dead in a police cell in outback NSW and Gundy had been shot dead by a police officer in Sydney after being wrongly identified as someone else.

When the footage aired on ABC News it shocked the nation, prompting then prime minister Paul Keating to call for more respect for Indigenous people.

16. All of these incidents are rooted firmly in historical traditions that lampoon and subjugate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Elder said.

Two drag queens in Cairns dress up as Indigenous women (Supplied)

“The way in which you did blackface in the olden days was with burnt cork,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Burn the cork and use the ash to get your face a different colour.”

“In the early 20th century in Australia if a white man fathered Aboriginal children they would often be given a burnt cork as an insult.”

“That intention continues today – blackface [is] clearly used as a way reinforcing the difference between black and white.”

Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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