Blackface and blaming Indigenous health woes on culture are two sides of the same racist coin

Australian basketballer Alice Kunek (left) attracted the ire of a team-mate for this Instagram post where she had painted her face brown. Instagram

I engaged in debate recently with someone who said very clearly that the gap in Indigenous health in Australia was due to culture. Thus, his argument went, to reach health parity Indigenous culture would have to change.

Simultaneously, debate also began concerning “blackface” and whether dressing up in this style was racist or not. It followed Australian basketballer Alice Kunek attracting the ire of team-mate Liz Cambage – whose father is Nigerian – for an Instagram post where she had painted her face brown.

These two debates share similar characteristics that reveal aspects of Australian society when it comes to race. And there is a real absence in these debates of basic knowledge about culture and history.

Where did blackface come from?

Asking if blackface is racist is a bit like asking if the earth is round. You only need to simply search Zip Coon or Jim Crow and you will find the rich racist origins of blackface in 1830s America.

Blackface originated as a popular movement that lampooned and ridiculed African Americans leading up to the American Civil War. It continued until the 1970s. White performers in blackface would perform in what were known as minstrel shows, where they could extend the emotional range and musical style of their performances based on African American music and talent without fear of condemnation or competition.

Minstrel shows also provided a site where African Americans and all people of colour could be openly parodied and ridiculed while being excluded from the entertainment industry.

In this way, blackface is a symbol of personal ridicule, racial exclusion, and intercultural exploitation. The word “coon” lingers in racial abuse as one of many legacies of this movement.

Culture is not easily changed

The statement that Aboriginal culture has to change to close the health gap is much the same.

Health in any population is socially determined; this is a basic population health fact. Instigators of this debate present their judgements of some behaviour among Australia’s Indigenous populations as endemic to their culture, and then argue that their culture must change.

There are basic flaws in this thinking. First is the understanding that culture is not behaviour. People change their behaviour all the time, but changing culture is a very different proposition. An analogy is how it feels when managers talk about implementing culture change in the workplace.

Cultures are not easily changed, as is evident in the resilience of Aboriginal cultures after centuries of persecution. Culture change in any context is slow and sometimes careful because cultural change hurts.

Imposed cultural change is an overt violence condemned by all historical accounts and resultant statements of human rights. Saying that this change is necessary to assist anyone is nonsense.

In their shoes

Racist behaviour operates through substituting offhand unthinking statements for real or true statements. Racist statements are not stupid; they are intentionally unthinking because the aim is to encourage decisions that do not consider how proposals about others or representations of others play out and impact others’ lives.

Just consider, for a moment, how the granddaughter of an African American musician would view a blackface person at a party. Think how an Aboriginal community that has survived mission incarceration, child removal, assimilation and interventionist policy for generations might feel when someone says that their Aboriginal culture is the impediment to their health and well-being.

Speaking against these unconsidered attitudes and actions is not imposing political correctness. It is simply applying good thinking and consideration. History presents knowledge of the past and what was done to some groups by others, so it also engages consideration for the future – informing us so we ensure actions done now do not repeat this harm.

A fear of history has been successfully marketed among members of Australian society. The direct media support and continued funding for edits of colonial reality have worked. This is not because the writings are in any way true, but because they have social validity. Colonial violence was so abhorrent that denial is socially valid and the most common offhand response.

This validity has two basic sources – the intense depravity of colonial violations, and the obvious continuation of a poverty of consideration for Aboriginal peoples. The choice people have to make is whether they are courageous enough to face the truth or use their power to conceal it.

This has resulted in Australians generally not being aware of the significance and value of their history. Media preferences for short, high-impact stories fit seamlessly with these unconsidered offhand manipulations. Resultant “debate” is fleeting. It is uninformed, offhand, and ripe with hostility.

The social interactions surrounding these debates are repeated in a similar form whenever they arise. The old adage is history repeats, but now this seems to have become a repetitious beat that prompts a lot of dancing just to avoid stepping forward with truth.