Why the act of Blackface is never benign

Having just returned from a visit to Victoria University in Melbourne where race and racism in sport organisations was the topic, it was drawn to my attention that when I visited the wonderful spectacle of the Australian Open that some of the fans wore blackface to depict Serena Williams.

Fans invariably argue that such acts are done in good humour and are merely jokes. The turn to humour and jokes as a defence for such activities is to deny that any malice or racism was intended while also attempting to minimize the impact of behaviour.  Some also argue that face painting at tennis and other events is all great fun yet such instances are odious for a number of reasons.

A key aspect of such events is that we cannot be neutral about them. We cannot deny that Black and minoritised ethnic individuals in our communities that have experienced racism and are vulnerable to such acts will see them as acts of aggressions and manifestations of a form of racism.

It is unlikely that Serena Williams, whose history of racism is well documented, will see this as anything other than a racial microaggression. The experience of such events for many is harmful and where perpetrators and others try to deny any wrongdoing they invalidate the lived realities of those who experience everyday racism in Australia.

Whether spectators see their acts as good natured is not the point of this comment, it is more about what each act signifies in a society that implicitly understands that Black and minoritised communities in wider society and therefore in sport are systematically oppressed and subordinated due to race and racism.

In addition, each nation returns a plethora of contexts that resonate according to the socio-cultural histories that inform the popular consciousness about race and racism, Australia is no different. The act of blackface is never without context and never benign. In Australia, racism can appear in an mélange of connected forms; conscious, unconscious, direct or indirect, institutional and structural.

We have seen examples of recent high profile incidents of racism in Australia such as spectator victimization of indigenous AFL star Adam Goodes, or even the tasteless blackface on TV show Hey, Hey it’s Saturday by ‘the Jackson Jive’. Each of these incidents received opprobrium and validation in substantial measure thus speaking volumes for the racial tensions in Australia so close to Australia Day. 

Racism can be perpetuated if diminished, made light of or ignored. Sport has the power to bring people together, however, as in any walk of life, there is always the potential for it to reinforce intolerance, difference and privilege. We cannot have racism in society without racists and so we should expect multifarious guises of racism in sport while continually working to eradicate them.

This article was originally published in part in February 2016 at http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/02/04/it-ever-exceptable-put-black-faces and is reprinted with the full permission of the author.

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Prof Kevin Hylton

Prof Kevin Hylton

Kevin Hylton is Professor of Equality and Diversity in Sport, Leisure and Education in the Carnegie Faculty, Leeds Beckett University.
Prof Kevin Hylton

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