‘Drag Race Down Under’ Proves That Australia Still Has A Blackface Problem
Australia has its own history of blackface, and seems incapable of learning from it.
Once again, blackface is a topic of discussion in Australian entertainment, this time courtesy of the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under.
In last night’s episode RuPaul himself confronted Perth queen Scarlet Adams about a documented history of blackface performances. RuPaul said that he had no interest in “cancelling” Scarlet, and instead saw this episode as a moment of humility and teaching.
CW: discussions and depictions of blackface and racism
However, watching a room full of mostly white queens discuss blackface, without a single Indigenous person in the room to speak for themselves, rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. The issue could so easily have been solved by casting more than one Indigenous queen on the show, or by simply not choosing to cast a queen with a blackface past. The show instead made the somewhat questionable decision to broadcast this moment, and use Scarlet Adams and her blackface redemption arc as a point of entertainment.
Using blackface on the show as a teachable moment should be incredibly embarrassing for every Australian — what a thrill that our contribution to the largest drag platform in the world is showing our full racist ass to the international community.
When Drag Race Down Under was announced earlier this year, photos re-emerged of Scarlet Adams (Anthony Price) in blackface, after Indigenous queen Felicia Foxx posted them on her Instagram. The photos include multiple incidents of blackface and cultural appropriation, including a costume featuring an Aboriginal flag t-shirt and blacked out teeth, said to be taken on Invasion Day. In response, Scarlet Adams reposted an apology from 2020 to his Instagram, followed by a new one addressing their time on Drag Race specifically.
View this post on Instagram
“Despite this being a story I am deeply ashamed of and something I had tried to forget. I’ve come to realise in recent years that taking responsibility and admitting my mistakes is an important learning experience … there is no way to sugar-coat it, when I was a teenager roughly eight years ago I performed in blackface/cultural appropriation. I was young and ignorant. I am no longer this person.”
The drag queen repeated these sentiments on the show, saying that they had changed, had made mistakes as a younger person, and regretted their actions. They also took the time to point out that she had done blackface and cultural appropriation — along with “many other queens”.
We already know that the Australian drag scene (like most of Australia itself) has a problem with racism — but it does beg the question of why it seems like every year we have another blackface “scandal”, and why Australia seems incapable of learning from them.
Hey Hey It’s Blackface
Part of Scarlet’s apology has been based around both “being an idiot” and not knowing better. Yet Scarlet’s blackface drag happened between 2012 and 2016, a time when blackface was very much in the public discourse. This seems to have become a common defence when people in Australia get called out for incidents of blackface — ignorance. But blackface being treated as a “scandal” and a “debate” is not only old news in Australia, it is reoccurring news, and makes it hard to believe that people can truly be completely unaware of the racist ramifications.
The last time I remember blackface and appropriation in Australian TV being a topic of discussion was literally only last year, when during the Black Lives Matter protests, Netflix pulled most of Chris Lilley’s shows due to blackface depictions. This, was of course, treated as a hysterical moment of cancel culture, with the notion of blackface’s offence to Black people in this country up for “debate”.
If you have a casual look through the last four years of blackface headlines, you can see multiple reports of people being called out for blackface depictions, from celebrities to amateur football clubs. We had an international furore when a Serena Williams fan turned up to the Australian Open in full blackface. In the same year, we had Opals player Alice Kunek who posted to Instagram a photo of herself going to a party dressed as rapper Kanye West in blackface makeup. In 2016 we had a a Perth mum proudly declare that dressing her son in blackface as AFL player Nic Naitanui was a “QUEENING moment” and that anyone who was offended had a problem — which was widely defended by public figures. You can even read this comprehensive timeline by Indigenous journalist Alan Clarke, written back in 2016, which lists a spree of incidents leading up until then. Blackface has been a persistent and repetitive topic of conversation in Australia for a very long time.
Associate Professor of Modern History Melissa Bellanta says that Australia’s public reckoning with blackface performance has been kicking off since 2009 “when Harry Connick Jr slammed the Jackson 5 skit on the rebooted Hey Hey It’s Saturday show.”
This was a defining moment in Australia’s entertainment history — having the public censure from the USA a wakeup call to many people — but the fact it’s still being reported on and debated means Australia still hasn’t learned from it. The fact that people like Scarlet Adams are still using “ignorance” as a legitimate defence means that there’s a problem that goes deeper than awareness of blackface being offensive.
scarlet adams’ glowingly positive treatment on #DragRaceDownUnder is a painful reminder of the countless instances of racism I, and I know many other queer people of colour, have had to endure in these so called “safe” spaces only to have them be healing moments for white people
— former girlboss of colour (@babydiaspora) May 29, 2021
Australia’s History Of Blackface
Aside from ignorance, one of the most common defences of blackface in Australia that you’ll see is that it has different, less offensive cultural connotations here than in the US, and therefore lacks offence. However, this is simply not true — Australia has its own racist engagement with blackface and minstrelsy going back hundreds of years, something continually pointed out by academics, historians, and First Nations communities.
As Indigenous rapper Briggs said, in response to a recent defence of blackface: “Australia has its own history of blackface that dates back hundreds of years. So excuse me, Hugo from Flight Facilities, but are you a history of major in race relations in Australia? Go f**k yourself.”
“Australian and UK blackface minstrel performances were common sources of entertainment throughout the 1820s and 1830s,” points out Noongar and Wemba-Wemba writer and academic Carissa Lee, whose thesis explores ethical representation of First Nations people in theatre and performing arts.
“Aboriginal characters were portrayed in theatre and film by white actors in blackface in the 19th century. One famous example is in the 1955 film Jedda where the main Aboriginal male character was white actor Paul Clarke in blackface. According to Ben Miller’s The Mirror of Whiteness: Blackface in Charles Chauvel’s Jedda, the film’s filmmaker Charles Chauvel stated that race could be authentically portrayed by a white performer.”
Associate Professor Melissa Bellanta also explains that blackface in Australia was also performed very differently than in the US, and was treated from the beginning as “a joke” — a defence that continues to persist in this country when it comes to blackface and cultural appropriation.
“While many of the most popular blackface minstrel shows in the US were slick, musical-style productions, the blackface minstrel characters that Australian audiences liked most were lowbrow slapstick comedians who engaged in daggy humour and physical comedy. It was this style of performance, sometimes mixed up with drag and off-colour jokes, that continued to thrive in amateur Australian performances. Australian audiences were more able to tell themselves that thus was all a bit of harmless fun because the whole concept of impersonating African Americans seemed at a greater remove than it was in the US, where actual African Americans were there to protest or disapprove.”
“This was why blackface performance was able to exist at the amateur level for much longer than in the States without being recognised as being based on hurtful and ridiculous racist stereotypes steeped in a history of slavery and white supremacy.”
FUCK DRAG RACE DOWN UNDER! Im so sick of white people getting a slap on the wrist for racism. You wait until there's no one but white people in the room to discuss Scarlett Adams performing in blackface for years and she gives the most bullshit apology. The season is fucked
— Jax 😒💀 (@TheBaronGrimm) May 29, 2021
Silence Is Violence
When it comes to “discussions” about blackface in Australia, it can’t be done without Indigenous Australians — the subject of blackface racism — at the forefront. Drag Race Down Under instead had an entire discussion about it, without listening or boosting what Indigenous people are asking the country to consider about the topic.
“My People & Our Culture Is Not A Joke For Any One Especially Privileged Dominating Cultures To Make A Mockery Out Of Us‼️‼️” says Felicia Foxx on her Instagram post.
“To think this is what will be on display and representing the Australian Drag scene on RuPaul’s Drag Race, an international television platform is disgusting. WAKE THE FUCK UP. OUR LIVES MATTER, BLACK LIVES MATTER ✊🏿.”
“Let’s hope World of Wonder cast the next season of Drag Race Down Under and do background checks beforehand and don’t give a RACIST this platform to represent Australia!”
The very bare minimum we can ask of Drag Race Down Under season 2 is no more blackface queens. The literal bare minimum.
Please don’t stop watching Drag Race Down Under!!!! I get it, believe me I do! But we need the ratings for a second season because I REALLY want to jump out of a box like @itsSHANGELA 😂💖
— Jojo Zaho (@ZahoJojo) May 29, 2021
Patrick Lenton is the Editor of Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.