April 2016

A recent incident involving Australian women’s national basketball team player Alice Kunek posting a photo of herself with her face painted black for an end-of-season dress up party invoked public outrage and condemnation from many, including her team-mate Liz Cambage, whose father is Nigerian. Kunek apologised for her choice of a blackface costume at the Melbourne Boomers party, saying she didn't intend to offend anyone.

However, a scan of the responses across social media following the incident showed a general lack of understanding as to why Kunek’s actions were so controversial. Indeed, much of the criticism online has focused on Cambage – a common upshot for those who confront racial ridicule and prejudice in the public domain. Criticisms have included accusations of ‘political correctness’ on Cambage's behalf and questions about whether blackface is even an issue in Australia.

So, what’s the big issue with blackface? To answer this, we need to be aware of the past.

Blackface is a relic of minstrel shows in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th Century. In the performances, white men painted their faces black to perform skits as African-Americans, creating and amplifying horrible racial stereotypes. These performances also found popularity in Australia, where up until the late-1960s and early-1970s it was also quite acceptable to represent Aboriginal people in a comparable way to that of the minstrels of the USA.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane said “We've had many examples of this in recent times but people should know by now that blackface is bound up in a history of racial mockery and humiliation, and they should know that it's unacceptable in our society today”.

Cambage has given her support to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Racism It Stops With Me campaign since 2012. She has set a powerful example by appearing in Play by the Rules community service announcements condemning racism in sport and promoting inclusion for all. This messaging is one of the key contributors to enhancing positive behavior.

There are a range of resources and tools available to educate yourself on racism and discrimination in sport. The Racism it Stops With Me website features a range of information to help people reflect on what they can do to counter racism and ways to show your support for the campaign, while the Play by the Rules website features a ‘Racism in sport’ toolkit which provides policies and guidelines for grassroots sporting clubs.

Commissioner Soutphommasane said “There may be ignorance about the harms of certain conduct, but let’s not have ignorance come out again in future”.

Dr Paul Oliver

Sports Project Advisor to the Australian Human Rights Commission.