Women’s sport is all over the news today. And while normally I’d rejoice that the media are finally paying attention to our nation’s brilliant female athletes, the mighty Australian Opals are attracting coverage today for some pretty awful reasons.
On Sunday afternoon, basketballer Alice Kunek posted a photo on Instragam in which she and Melbourne Boomers teammate, Tess Madgen, were both wearing fancy dress. Kunek was dressed up as rapper Kanye West, complete with a ripped white t-shirt, a beanie… and a face of dark brown paint.
Liz Cambage – who is of Nigerian descent – was shocked and upset by the photo of her fellow Opal appearing in blackface. She took to Twitter to express her surprise and disgust at the ‘costume’, sending a series of tweets that have since provoked widespread media attention.
So – before we go on – let’s pause for a brief history of blackface and why it is so deeply offensive for people of colour.
Blackface dates back to the 1800s, when white Americans minstrels would paint their faces with charcoal in an exaggerated and degrading portrayal of African-American characters. While ultimately intended as entertainment for white people, these performances also served as a form of not-so-subtle, pro-slavery propaganda. The actors represented black Americans as stupid, lazy, ugly, brutish and above all, deserving of enslavement, unable to live independently of their white ‘masters’.
The performances became popular all over the world – including in Australia – and served to entrench awful and lasting stereotypes of black people. The degrading tradition very much played itself out in Australia as well, with white actors continuing to play Aboriginal roles as recently as the 1950s and 60s.
As a result, blackface carries with it some incredibly upsetting associations for people of colour. It’s a reminder of the hate borne towards, and the violence committed against, black people throughout history; the remnants of which are undeniably still with us today… As evidenced by the current situation with the Australian women’s basketball team.
Kunek has now apologised and deleted the image but both she and Cambage continue to cop a barrage of abuse on social media. Kunek is being called a racist and her apology has been labelled hollow because she attempted to excuse her behaviour by saying she didn’t realise it was offensive.
Social media has been bubbling and frothing about the issue all morning. Liz Cambage is being told (almost exclusively by white people) that she overreacted to her teammate’s blackface and is experiencing some cruel, racially fuelled-hatered from bigots on Twitter.
At the 2012 Olympics, Cambage became the first woman ever to deliver a dunk (Courtesy of Channel 10):
There are also others who are expressing genuine sympathy for Cambage’s position but arguing that she could handled the matter better by keeping it out of the public domain. ‘Why make this an issue and distract from the sport?’ they ask. ‘Surely this could have been deal with internally by Basketball Australia?’
And you know what? For a moment there, I was one of them.
While the incredible offensiveness of blackface can’t be denied, my initial reaction was that this could have been handled better by Cambage. Kunek is Cambage’s teammate, I reasoned. Why didn’t she simply picking up the phone? If you witness racist behaviour from a colleague at work, then you should speak to them directly before taking further action.
But then I saw Cambage’s third tweet:
To me, those words speak volumes about why Cambage reacted the way she did.
They reveal a life of quiet childhood torment; of racial undertones potentially effecting the way she played her sport, perhaps inhibiting her rise, perhaps making her question her own commitment to the game. Those words suggest this isn’t the first time Cambage has felt let down by someone she presumed saw her as an equal, a teammate, a friend – not as an ‘other’.
It’s a reminder that none of our experiences of racism are the same, nor does each individual incidence of racism exist in a vacuum. My personal assessment of what is a an appropriate reaction to blackface, is shaped by my own personal experience of racism. And that experience is different to Cambage’s.
In chapter 31 of the late, great Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, seven-year-old Scout quotes her father, saying “you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.”
Well, today I – and a lot of other people – made judgements about what Liz Cambage’s behaviour ‘should’ have been while wearing our own shoes. If I could actually climb inside her – admittedly much larger and athletically superior – shoes, I imagine the view would be quite different.
Cambage saw something on the weekend that humiliated and hurt her. And it was done by someone she calls a teammate. She reacted in her own way, based on a lifetime of experiences that nobody but she can know the extent of.