Here’s What Happened When Australia Defended Blackface In 2009

It may seem crazy, but this is the first time many Australians have heard the facts.

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If you were new to this country, you’d figure this weekend’s controversy surrounding Alice Kunek and her Opals teammate Liz Cambage was the first time Australia had ever heard of blackface.

Completely ignorant of the wider associations and effects of her actions, Kunek dressed as Kanye West by covering her face in brown paint and proudly posted a photo on her public Instagram. When Cambage criticised the move, she was the one inundated with abuse from people denying the act was offensive. Then a number of high-profile Australians with significant platforms to air their views jumped on board. Derryn Hinch, a broadcaster with more than three decades of experience, earnestly asked whether he could paint his face black to dress as Martin Luther King. Sunrise, one of the most consistently popular TV shows in the country, debated the issue with a panel of four white media commentators then solicited Pauline Hanson for her input. Comments section all across this great land fired up with stills from the movie White Chicks. 

But amidst all the well-intentioned op-eds and videos that have come out in response to this calmly explaining why “blackface is never okay”, one thing has been somewhat overlooked: we’ve fucking been here before.

Hey Hey It’s Blackface

As Indigenous Affairs reporter Allan Clarke noted in a comprehensive timeline of events for BuzzFeed, Australia in fact has a long history with blackface. The American minstrel groups which caused offence in the United States were equally as popular in Australia and went on to inspire similarly reductive and mocking portrayals of Aboriginal people on film and stage up until the mid-1950s. However, with our Indigenous population being so much smaller than that of African Americans in the US, it was difficult for the enduring outrage to reach the mainstream media.

This changed slowly over the proceeding decades and created myriad instances of the act provoking offence in private, as well as a number of overdue national debates. In 1992, for instance, two NSW police officers were condemned by all sides of politics when dressing in blackface to jokingly portray two Aboriginal men who had died in police custody.

“We should make this a turning point,” said then-Prime Minister Paul Keating. “We should decide that we should expunge racism from every corner of this country. I ask Australians how can we expect to have pride in ourselves when we debase our values in this way?”

Despite the practice now being intrinsically tied to this traumatic event in addition to its already well-known connotations from the US, Australia hadn’t yet learned its lesson a full 17 years (and a handful of high-profile blackfaces) later. As a result, in 2009, we suffered unprecedented international humiliation with an infamous episode Hey Hey It’s Saturday.

The reaction felt by guest judge and US singer Harry Connick Jr rippled around the world with the event being reported with confusion and dismay from major overseas outlets.

The Guardian labelled Australia “the world’s most savagely self-parodic country” and sarcastically thanked us for “yet another important contribution to the annals of human culture”. The View chalked the incident up to our poor treatment of the Indigenous population, and an old friend of Michael Jackson appeared on morning TV in the US personally condemning the act. “[Michael] had an experience like that in Australia when he encountered racism there as a little boy,” he said. “It reflects badly on the ignorance of the audience.” Gawker instead noted Connick’s quote during the cringeworthy broadcast — “[America] has spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we really take it to heart” — and marvelled at the fact “American is being the voice of cultural sensitivity”. “Australia must be really messed up,” they concluded.

This criticism was well-heard by some. A number of publications compiled the international reaction to the event as a means of giving readers broader context, and then published further insight from local writers. Karl Quinn of SMH reiterated Somers cajoled on-air apology to Connick, ‘‘To your countrymen, it’s an insult to have a black-face routine like that on the show”, and rebutted: “Not just to his countrymen, Daryl. Not just to his.” Crikey‘s Melanie Mahony (who now works at Junkee Media) made an explainer on the history of the act and the offence it causes. For Overland, Maxine Beneba Clarke outlined how this plays into her broader experiences as a woman of colour in a “white Australia”. “Not only does white Australia have a blackface history,” she wrote. “The present is also looking fairly boot-polished.”

But, as Clarke noted in her piece, these points were lost on many in the mainstream. Despite Paul Keating’s powerful statements in 1992 to the contrary, then-Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard defended the skit. On a visit to the US she affirmed it “was meant to be humorous and would be taken in that spirit by most Australians”. “[Gillard said this without] realising that considering it as humorous, in itself, was the problem,” Clarke wrote.

Will This Outrage Pave The Way For Change?

Australia historically has a nasty habit of overlooking events or viewpoints which don’t fall in line with a certain narrative. We remember the Anzacs, but don’t talk about the Stolen Generations. We celebrate Australia Day, so won’t consider its darker connotations. We can’t be a nation of larrikins if we have to care about the potential harm of each joke.

Thankfully, much of this has changed even since the Hey Hey controversy in 2009, and a great deal of that has to do with social media. Though they’re not without their problems, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter distribute influence equally among their users and allow for instant dissemination of thought from a vast array of sources. It’s the kind of advancement that allows for Indigenous right protesters to directly take issue with one the nation’s biggest news outlets over their representation and a private speech given by an Indigenous journalist on the state of Australian racism to reach millions in a matter of hours.

It’s also where this new blackface controversy, as well as the recent handful which preceded it, have played out.

What would have previously been a private matter between teammates — potentially contributing to a continued source of frustration to the person of colour taking offence — has turned into a true national debate. And, while that may seem overblown to some old media arbiters, to others it’s simply overdue.

This may finally be the time Australians so often excluded from the term “most Australians” finally have their voices heard.