Beverley Wang is the host of the ABC’s new podcast It’s Not A Race. (ABC RN: Jeremy Story Carter)
“Canada — it’s just like Australia, right?”
That’s the sort of small talk I got all the time after moving to Melbourne from Vancouver.
Fair enough — but people weren’t very happy with my answers.
It turns out people weren’t asking because they wanted to hear how shocked I was by COON cheese in the supermarket, or a display of golliwog dolls in a prominent Melbourne shopping arcade.
Eventually I realised the problem.
People were seeking praise and positive reinforcement — “Australia is wonderful/beautiful/just like home” — and I was committing the social faux pas of answering their question with observations of difference.
But my experience as a newcomer to Australia couldn’t be separated from my lived experience.
I’d lived in four countries before moving here, and as a journalist and person of colour, I cannot ever recall a time in my life that I didn’t take note of difference — and my place within that context — as a matter of survival.
So, when the infamous Hey Hey It’s Saturday blackface performance happened in October 2009, not long after I’d arrived, you can imagine how those small talk conversations went.
I was struck not only by the fact that the incident had happened at all, but that the debate afterwards was over whether blackface itself is racist.
To my eyes, there was no other way to see it, but, based on the media coverage, that wasn’t the case for many Australians.
As other blackface incidents surfaced on social media in the intervening years, the same debate bubbled up.
In February 2016, Opals basketballer Alice Kunek posted a photo of herself on Instagram as a blackface Kanye West, for which she subsequently apologised.
Yet it was her teammate Liz Cambage, whose father is Nigerian, who experienced online abuse for calling it out.
“You know, I cop that all the time: ‘It’s just makeup,'” says NITV presenter Allan Clarke, who commented on the Kunek blackface controversy at the time.
“I have to think, well, if my grandfather or grandmother was watching that, it would be terribly painful. It’s a deeply complex feeling for myself, being Koori, and I’m sure for African Americans as well.”
A common defence of blackface in Australia is that it has a different history here than in the United States.
But that’s not entirely the case.
“Basically blackface was here within a couple of years of when it was created in the 1830s in the US, and it went on right up into the 1950s that you had blackface sketches,” says Maryrose Casey, an associate professor with the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, who studies racialised performance.
“It was particularly popular [from] about the 1850s, 1860s, up to the 1920s,” she says.
“As a form of racialised caricature in Australia, when they performed on the goldfields they incorporated anti-Asian [views] because there was a lot of anti-Asian feeling on the goldfields.”
When incidents like these happen, or when someone is caught on tape racially abusing another person on public transportation — an event that happens with enough regularity that we now think of it as a specific category of racism — the inevitable question lurches into public conversation: is Australia racist?
This preoccupation is curious to me, and as part of my new podcast It’s Not A Race, I’ve been asking people what they think of it.
Because for me, that question misses the point.
Those who think Australia isn’t racist will always answer no. Those who think Australia is racist will always answer yes.
I doubt those sides will ever meet, and the conversation goes nowhere.
Journalist and broadcaster Stan Grant says the question “is Australia racist?” misses the point. (ABC Radio: Conversations)
It’s also a maddening question, because at the same time that it provides cover for those in need of examining their beliefs, it also creates a noisy, hyper-charged environment that makes it very hard to do just that.
“It’s a question that we hear a lot, it’s almost a reflexive thing,” says ABC Indigenous Affairs editor, Stan Grant.
“The moment a racially tinged, racially motivated incident takes place, that question is front and centre.
“I prefer to ask the question: How are we racist, in what ways does racism express itself in Australia?”
That question seems apt, but what else could we be asking? Who should be doing the asking, and who gets to answer? That’s what I want to know.