The Big Issue : Edition 507
culture police Fiona Scott-Norman THE BIG ISSUE 18 – 28 MARCH 2016 29 ILLUSTRATIONBYGREGBAKES;ORIGINALPHOTOGRAPHBYMILESSTANDISH IT’S AS SIMPLE AS BLACK AND WHITE: WHAT WAS ACCEPTABLE YESTERDAY CAN BE OFFENSIVE TODAY. MOVE ON, MINSTRELS attention-seeking idiots.” It’s worth noting that these assertions are never made by persons of colour. Where are all the thumbs ups from the Indigenous community, comments saying: “Knock yourself out, Sis. Good laugh, eh?” Where? Nowhere. The comments under the Kunek stories are classics. Textbook examples of white Australians fuming that Kunek didn’t mean anything by it, so it doesn’t mean anything. “Fancy dress isn’t blackface”; “Painting your face black isn’t the same as blackface”; “Get over it. Tired of people endlessly needing to be offended by something.” And so on... Rivers of whitesplanations of why it ain’t racism, why Kunek’s teammate Liz Cambage (who has a Nigerian father) was the problem because she called Kunek out, and outraged multitudes dismissing as laughable the notion that “So, white people can’t dress up as anyone black now?” Guess what. No. No we can’t. A lot of people haven’t processed the idea that just because there’s no malice intended, it doesn’t mean it’s not racist. It requires empathy and imagination to make that leap. And white folk have been in the driving seat for so long now – running the joint, merrily exploiting everything for centuries, taking or buying whatever we want – that it is inconceivable to us that there’s something we can’t have. That if, say, we admire Kanye West (an issue in itself, which we’ll leave for another day), we don’t get to “black up” in homage. Because, and this is the other unimaginable thing, it’s not about us. We’ve rained a corrosive storm of abuse, exploitation, cruelty and mockery on people of colour since time immemorial. We do not get to decide what’s racist. Boo hoo. And we most certainly don’t get to do blackface. Period. Because of what blackface represents, it can pack much the same punch as a swastika. It appears that Australia’s history and humanities education is so impoverished that we no longer know what a signifier is. What a symbol is. What blackface means. It’s not innocent. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not a fun toy. It’s appalling. Listen up, white people: put down the shoe polish and think about someone else for a change. IT’S NUMBING THAT in 2016 (which was most definitely “the future” when I was a teenager watching British TV science show Tomorrow’s World), sky-high stacks of white people still don’t get that “blackface” is not okay. In the 1970s it was thigh-slappingly hilarious, right? To put that time in context for those who weren’t there, The Black & White Minstrel Show (a British TV production) was so ubiquitous that even black comedian Lenny Henry was on board. We were happy little oblivious racists, and it was all a lark. Or so we thought. But now? Which part of the “Hey! White person! Don’t black your face up!” memo did we not get? Hapless Australian basketballer Alice Kunek is the latest accidental racist to be caught out, a deer in the headlights of social media, for blacking up as Kanye West for a party. But the same shitstorm comes around with depressing regularity. Every few months some oblivious dingbat decides they’re going to pay homage to (usually) a black musician. They smear something brown on their face, maybe pop on a ’fro, tweet the image – and then are stunned when they suffer a massive public smackdown. “I’m sorry if I offended anyone,” they wail as one, genuinely perplexed. This happens every time. Every. Single. Time. Just how ignorant do you have to be to think, “Sure, every other whitey who’s blacked up in the last decade has got into trouble, but I don’t mean anything bad by it, ergo I’m not racist and it will be fine. Pass the shoe polish.” The answer lies buried in the shallow grave of white privilege. One of my peers, Wendy Harmer, wrote eloquently recently on the ABC website on the topic of gender and sexual fluidity, and how fluidity is one of the “best things to happen” in her lifetime. I agree wholeheartedly, but I’d put the questioning of “entitlement” up there too. Such a revelation. Every day another kazillion examples of how good we white folk have always had it, and how pissed off we are if that privilege is challenged. Honestly, we’re hilarious. Squealing like toddlers who’ve had to surrender a toy. The urban dictionary describes it as “whitesplaining”; white people cracking the sads about political correctness gone mad, and paternalistically explaining to black people why what they’re experiencing isn’t racism. “Lighten up”, we say. “Stop being so sensitive! Stop spoiling our fun. We’re not racist, you » For virtually more FSN, visit fionascottnorman.com.au or follow her on Twitter @FScottNorman.