Tuesday, September 20, 2011

enough, already

A year later Kamahl appeared on Spicks and Specks: [relevant comment at 3:00 minutes in]

While I actually like Kamahl - as a person, not his taste in music - and while I agree with some of what he says, I don't think he really answered some of the questions put to him.

I’m sure it’s grating for people to constantly comment on one’s colour and/or to be treated as “different”, but if it was really such offensive hell, why oh why did he go back time and again, for years, to appear as a guest?
He could not possibly have needed the money or publicity.

If he thinks it's divisive to mention colour, why draw attention to it himself.


A lot of people – including an Aboriginal woman at the end of one of Dina’s links – have said that Australia does have a history of blackface.

I don’t agree. Let’s start with some examples of what whitefella Australians are guilty of:

Still around in the 1960s was a hard working, steel-wool product called “N… Boy Soap Pads”. At some stage these were re-branded “Bigger Boy”.
There was also a brand of liquorice with a similar name.

In 2012 we still have a brand of cheese called “Coon”. [There are no raccoons in Australia.] 
Some old cartoons from Gary Foley’s Koori History Website

From the May 1888 edition of The Bulletin:

Bulletin May 1887
"His Native Land"

Plenty of Australian cartoons contained negative views of Indigenous Australians, but a special level of hatred was reserved for Asians.

From an 1895 edition of the Bulletin

“The Yellow Trash Question”
The Australian film industry had a long and noble tradition of patronising or insensitive attitudes to indigenous Australians:

In 1976 Kamahl appeared as an Aboriginal killer in the movie Journey Out of Darkness.
Ed Devereaux [Uncle Matt from Skippy] played an Aboriginal tracker.
Not just an insult to Aboriginals who might want to find work as actors, but to any viewer as well.

The movie Jedda was the earliest Australian colour film to feature Aboriginal Actors in an Aboriginal storyline

The film clips on the ASO website make Jedda seem almost respectable, but here are some of the posters used to advertise the movie:

In the good old days, Australian film was sent to France for processing. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks leapt from this peak in the Katherine Gorge for the movie:

The footage of her leap was lost when the plane crashed on its way to be processed. Rosalie declined the opportunity to give it another shot.
Were indigenous Australians viewed and treated as inferiors by many whitefellas? Yes. 
Were indigenous Australians hunted down, poisoned and murdered? Yes.
Were indigenous children selected for “rescue” on the basis of their race? Absolutely. [In fact not just on the basis of their race but on their racial bloodlines.]

Was Australia’s version of blackface the same thing as America’s Jim Crow version? Definitely not.

Jim Crow was not merely patronising or ignorant; it was deliberately vicious and dehumanising. By the 1930s minstrelsy was somewhat sanitised [though travelling 'medicine' shows featuring Jim Crow style blackface still toured in some of the poorer American states].

From an American article called The GarbageMan: Why I Collect Racist Objects, by David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum.

A confrontation with the visual evidence of racism -- especially thousands of items in a small room -- is frequently shocking, even painful. In the late 1800s traveling carnivals and amusement parks sometimes included a game called "Hit the Coon." A black man would stick his head through a hole in a painted canvas; the background was a plantation scene. White patrons would throw balls -- and in especially brutal instances, rocks -- at the black man's head to win prizes. A person living in the 21st century who sees that banner or a reproduction gets a glimpse of what it was like to be a black man in the early years of Jim Crow.

That carnival banner reinforced the idea that blacks were not as human as whites. It alleviated white guilt about black pain; it suggested that blacks did not experience pain the way normal people -- whites -- experienced pain. It helped legitimize "happy violence" directed against blacks. It functioned as an ego message for the white hurlers. How many poorly paid, socially marginalized whites expressed their frustration at the expense of "black heads?" The "Hit the Coon" game and its cousin, "African Dodger," were eventually replaced with target games that used wooden black heads. You do not have to be a psychologist to understand the symbolic violence. Not coincidentally, games that used blacks as targets were popular when the lynching of real blacks was increasing in frequency. The Jim Crow Museum has many objects that show blacks being thrown at, hit, or beaten. We do not have the carnival banner -- but I could teach a lot with one.

I don't care for a minute which country has the worst history of dehumanising a racial minority. Hate is not a competition. I'm simply saying that American Blackface and Australian Blackface were completely different.

David Pilgrim talks about the need to talk about racism:

The mission of the Jim Crow Museum is straightforward: use items of intolerance to teach tolerance. We examine the historical patterns of race relations and the origins and consequences of racist depictions. The aim is to engage visitors in open and honest dialogues about this country's racial history. We are not afraid to talk about race and racism; we are afraid not to. I continue to deliver public presentations at high schools and colleges. Race relations suffer when discussions of race and racism are verboten. High schools that "sincerely" include race, racism, and diversity in their curriculums increase tolerance for others. It is relatively easy to identify those high schools that are afraid or unwilling to honestly examine race and racism. There you will find a 1950s-like pattern of everyday race relations. Racial stereotypes will dominate, though they may go unspoken. Inevitably, there will be a "racial incident," -- a racial slur hurled, a fight blamed on "the other," -- and there will be no relevant foundation laid for dealing with the problem, other than hiring me or a similar "diversity consultant" to restore order. The Jim Crow Museum is founded on the belief that open, honest, even painful discussions about race are necessary to avoid yesterday's mistakes.

The museum website shows some items that help illustrate just how sick the stereotype was/is becoming again.

It is hard to know what is or isn’t racist, but I’m troubled that innocent and often quite insignificant events are often made a lot bigger than they are. An overly zealous approach to be being politically risks reinforcement of the idea that racism – past or present – was or is more benign than was actually the case.

For example, this sort of rubbish is an insult to all of those who have ever been on the receiving end of the real sickos:


  1. The irony of The Young Turks comments are amusing, "Those African Americans are so rowdy" says the woman. Hmm given the context I suspect the dancing guys are meant to be West Indian supporters, but presumably to the "enlightened" all "black folks" are the same.
    The other problem is for whatever reason fried chicken is a favourite dish for a lot of coloured communities world wide and least I point out the obvious a lot of white folk like KFC too or it wouldn't be the world wide success that it is.
    I am sure the advert makers would have been happy to reverse the roles but we all know that white guys can't dance and they ain't got no rythem.

  2. I am not sure if I have written this already elsewhere, but the Jackson Five clip did not make me think of black Americans, nor Australian aborigines, nor Indians. I would be concerned about the piece if black people in Australia found it offensive but basing objections about something not meant to be offensive by another country's standards is just weird.

    It is not until your personal friend is called a black c*** in the street before your eyes, do you really get an understanding of what day to day racism is about.

    Kamahl used self deprecating humour about his race. I am not sure why, but I have come across this before. I learnt that it does not give anyone else the right to follow up or make similar cracks to the same person.

  3. Hi Big Dog,
    You get THREE gold stars for pointing out the ironies.

    Hi Andrew,
    Sometimes I think I have some kind of handle on how bad life can be for people who are deemed 'different' in one way or another, but every time that kind of in-yer-face ugliness happens it shocks me all over again.
    Hopefully, the shock is not because I'm complacent, but because I really don't understand it.