Yesterday the Internet was inflamed when pictures from an Australian girl’s 21st birthday party went viral, prompting debate over the party goers’ use of ‘blackface’ as perpetuating a historically significant symbol of racial marginalisation or a malice-lacking act of private political incorrectness. It was just the blackface debate that was ignited by the photos but, once the story was picked up by international media outlets, Australians’ attitudes toward race in general were put under scrutiny. Sally Rawsthorne considers these outside perceptions of the Australian culture and asks: Is Australian racism as prevalent as other people think?
Who doesn’t love a good themed party? Boring people, that’s who. But at this particular party the interpretation of ‘theme’ was tilted overwhelmingly towards culturally insensitive and, no doubt in hindsight, posting pictures of the party and its guests to Facebook maybe wasn’t a great move. (I think we all agree the person who dressed up a member of the KKK missed the mark entirely.)
Following the fallout, the young Australian woman offered a Tumblr apology featuring references to the “amazing country” of Africa and in which she compared the use of blackface to Oktoberfest costumes. This didn’t exactly help matters. She wrote:
“I do understand the people who have painted themselves have offended people, although none of them intended that…. but how can people be annoyed that the majority of the people at the party were celebrating another countries culture.”
Cue Internet shitstorm.
US pop culture websites Buzzfeed and Jezebel published highly unflattering coverage of the incident, quickly criticising how offensive the party costumes were. Jezebel’s article says, “Dressing up in cheetah skin and beads in order to look “African” reduces an entire continent — which contains 54 countries, including Arabic-speaking countries like Morocco, Egypt and Libya — to a horrible stereotype of a “native.””
In addition to painting the party goers as idiots, the American coverage and, particularly, the reader comments illustrate just how racist Australia as a nation is perceived by outsiders.
The Australian Perspective
Just as you can never see yourself through the eyes of others, Australians can never see Australia through a foreign lens. For every one of us who identify with Australia as a multicultural and socially dynamic place where diversity should be encouraged, there seem to be an overwhelming number of “I’m not racist but…” types, who tend to command attention and rustle up negative publicity. While it’s not possible to make a sweeping statement true of all Australians, the University of Western Sydney’s ‘Challenging Racism’ report found that 87 per cent of Australians believe that we benefit from cultural and racial diversity. Although anecdotes aren’t evidence, this correlates with my personal experience, and what I’ve observed around me. The message of social, spiritual and cultural education at the schools I attended championed the ideas of tolerance and inclusion. My legal education assures me that we have anti-vilification laws to protect everyone. My workplace informs me there are people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities and races succeeding in all kinds of roles.
While nobody can pretend we live in a post-racist utopia, it feels like blackface stunts are the exception, not the rule from where I’m sitting.
Australian commentary on Jezebel’s article seems to back this sentiment. “I’m Australian and I find those photos horribly offensive”, said one. As another observed, “…some idiotic bogan having a racist party is not a question of national character.”
In response, several commentators found the suggestion that Australia was an overwhelmingly racist country to be, in fact, discriminatory against Australians. The idea that Australia is a racist, bigoted place of institutionalised bias and discrimination flies directly in the face of our national folklore of standing for a fair shake of the sauce bottle.
The International Point of View
Despite self-perception, “racist as fuck” was one of the kinder descriptions of Australia by one less-than-impressed Jezebel commentator. Commentators, both Australian and not, found common ground on the treatment of the Indigenous population, with all-round condemnation of examples such as failure to recognise Aboriginals in the Constitution and Western Australia’s Mandatory Sentencing laws, offering a united criticism of examples of blatant race-based discrimination.
The sheer volume of anecdotes of casual Australian racism, however, is far more disturbing. Some observations under Jezebel’s comments are totally ludicrous. “This is not the first time I’ve read about Australia having racist parties or gatherings. Native American themed weddings seem to be a thing over there too” and “When I went to Australia I was shocked by how many people wore blackface to the supermarket” require no national soul searching.
But other comments could prompt some introspection by the lucky country. Hundreds upon hundreds of comments show how we are seen on the world stage – “Listen to white people there talk about Abo’s on welfare, and you’ll quickly realise America doesn’t really have a race problem,” suggests one. “Jesus, Mississippi thinks these guys should tone it down”, says another.
Over on Buzzfeed, things aren’t much better, where the comment “Australians are well-known for their racism” received many Likes. Ouch. Remarks like this particularly sting when coming from the USA, home of the Klu Klux Klan and Republican Party (as one openly Australian commenter was implored to comment).
This isn’t the first incident of Australian racism being spotlighted in America, either. John Oliver, Jon Stewart’s temp fill-on on The Daily Show, recently called Australia “the most comfortably racist place” he’d ever been. To his mind, “They’ve really settled into their intolerance like an old resentful slipper”.
These repeated observations of ‘racist Australia’ can’t be a random coincidence. And there is a truth to them.
On The Defensive
In an exercise in futility and irrelevance, numerous Aussies make a valiant effort to convince readers that they are NOT racist, and nor are their friends. Of course there are plenty of non-racist Australians – I’m sure you are one of them – but this doesn’t change the fact that people around the world see us as all as an island of racist jerks, living in what John Oliver describes as “a coastal paradise surrounding a rocky hell”.
In the age of increasing globalisation, this old-world ‘White Australia’ approach is surely becoming less and less appealing.
Beneath the Jezebel article, many Australian commentators are quick to point out that other countries don’t exactly have a clean slate when it comes to oppressing racial minorities. That’s true. But no amount of comparing ourselves with the history of grotesque racial oppression (and worse) committed by others will make our home-grown brand any less entrenched.
As seen in the Challenging Racism report, we see ourselves as believers in multiculturalism and diversity. But this is obviously in direct contrast with how we are seen on a world stage. Type “Why are Australians” into Google, and wait for the autofill to ask you “Why are Australians so racist?” The disconnect between the perspective espoused by the Challenging Racism Report and the observations made by our foreign friends sadly undermines any confidence we have that Australia is a multicultural place where a fair go is offered to all.
Words by Sally Rawsthorne.