Put down the make-up and black away slowly…

On a “Hey Hey it’s Saturday” revival show in 2009, a skit for the “Red Faces” talent show segment was famously condemned by guest judge Harry Connick Jr. as being offensive and racist. The act had been performed on the show before, in the 1980’s, and was a light-hearted impersonation of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5.

The actors, none of whom were African-American, had used blackface style make-up and wigs to appear as the Jackson 5, with the fake Michael’s face painted white.

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that nobody gave a damn about the actual aim of the sketch, which was to make fun of Michael Jackson’s ever-changing appearance and the increasingly unlikely explanations given for it. Issues of defamation, mocking physical and/or mental illness and the simple question of what the hell passes for primetime TV entertainment these days were all ignored in the clamour to get on board another hot issue.

What's the worst that could happen..?
What’s the worst that could happen..?

The segment and Connick’s reaction received a lot of attention here and in the US, such as this discussion on The View, which spectacularly failed to add anything of value to the discourse. Ignorantly dismissing Australia’s indigenous culture during a discussion which claims to be about racial sensitivity is an irony as huge as it is delicious, and one that was sadly beyond the narrow gaze of Whoopi & co. that day.

However, watching both these clips raises the issue of the Australian perspective. Harry acknowledged his point of view is from a different place and tried to explain the American values involving blackface, while the panel of The View did manage to stumble their way into clumsily recognising that Australia is not the same place as the US.

The US has a long history of blackface as a performance device and it’s not a particularly proud one. There’s no denying that for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, blackface was a way of mocking, belittling and degrading African-Americans in a very public sphere, while also serving to establish and reinforce a number of inaccurate, hurtful and offensive stereotypes. Blackface was more than simply putting on dark make-up and a fuzzy wig, it also referred to the negative traits of the “black” characters involved. The fact that these characters were portrayed almost exclusively by white actors was simply adding insult to injury.

As such, in the US the simple act of dressing in blackface is one burdened with negative luggage, carrying the stigma of well over 100 years’ worth of offensive, oppressive and belittling stereotypes. In Australia however, it seems that the act of a non-black person putting on make-up to represent a dark-skinned character or person is simply that – dressing up as someone. The key seems to be making the distinction between what is invoking “blackface” and what is simply putting on a costume.

There have been a few high-profile incidents in Australia recently involving “blackface”, but most simply seem to boil down to a white person attending a fancy dress party in costume as a person with dark skin. This hasn’t saved them from the allegations of, at best, ignorance and insensitivity or, at worst, downright racism.

Australian basketballer Alice Kunek was involved in one such incident, which appeared to be a genuine misunderstanding. Alice honestly just wanted to got to a costume party dressed as Kanye West and didn’t realise that darkening her skin could upset people. Despite the lack of intent, her national teammate Liz Cambage, a woman with Nigerian ancestry, was still left significantly offended when she saw the photos. A lot of people didn’t agree with Cambage on the issue, but unfortunately many of them didn’t express it very well. In fact, they actually seemed pretty racist, which kind of proves Cambage’s point.

My Kanye is great, but your Kim costume sucks
My Kanye is great, but your Kim costume sucks

This doesn’t change the fact that plenty of Australians, who aren’t racist, simply don’t see a problem with using blackface as part of fancy dress costume. How else is a non dark-skinned person supposed to look like a dark-skinned person? It’s a fair question, and seemingly a simple one… unless you take more than a split second to consider the facts of the issue and the feelings of dark-skinned people.

More recently, an amateur sports club from Victoria hosted a dress up party for members, which resulted in more of the same problems. While those involved were apologetic for causing offence, there seemed to be more resistance towards admitting fault. It seems that rather than discourage the act of dressing up as a dark-skinned person, greater awareness of blackface has simply bought with it a greater desire to differentiate between racist characterization, and simple dressing-up.

It’s not that simple however, and the act itself really carries the potential to hurt people a lot, regardless of intent. Just to make it a bit more confusing, while some dark-skinned people take offence, some don’t – they actually kinda like it.

So it seems we’re no closer to finding a resolution. While some see no problem with blacking up their face, some people are deeply hurt and offended. Usually when there are two opposing viewpoints, we search for a middle ground to find a compromise.

However, in a case like this, the effects on the two groups contrast so greatly in severity,
(Benefit = some folks can do dress ups as they wish versus cost = other folks suffer serious, genuine and ongoing hurt), that it seems like one side really does deserve to be looked after more than the other.

As much fun as it is to put on a good costume, and as much as there is no offence intended, as the world becomes smaller and cultures become more entwined, when there is this much potential for damage, maybe it would be best if everyone showed a little awareness, sensitivity and consideration. Maybe it would be best if we all just left the dark make-up out of our fancy dress.

Also published on Medium.

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