So last week I attended this talk by Sasha Sarago (Editor/Founder of Ascension Mag) and Nayuka Gorrie (activist and writer) – ‘Beauty & the Beast: Indigenous beauty decolonised’. This was the blurb for it:
“You’re too pretty to be Aboriginal. This is the abhorrent statement Aboriginal women are confronted with by everyday Australians. Where did this demoralising statement originate? How do Aboriginal women feel about this statement? This talk explores the objectification of Indigenous beauty via Australia’s colonial history. How beauty is viewed by Indigenous women and the rise of decolonisation – a global movement to reclaim the beauty inherent in Indigenous values and traditions, revived through contemporary mediums.”
I went along to the talk for two reasons in particular:
1) I have a mental crush on Nayuka and truly admire Sasha; and
2) I wanted to see if either speakers would identify anti-Blackness – anti-non-mixed black bodies, specifically – as the actual origin of the backhanded and offensive phrase “too pretty to be Aboriginal’.
Because I have been reading about and hearing the views of people of mixed heritage on this topic – COLOURISM – for a long time. And, sometimes, the conversation stays focused on the person of mixed heritage’s feelings regarding having their identity questioned, whilst the bodies being denigrated by such comments – the bodies of non-mixed Black/Indigenous people, women in particular – are not represented in the conversation at all.
As first speaker, Sasha Sarago gave an amazing breakdown of the complex, often traumatic historical reasons why many Aboriginal people are of mixed heritage today. The former model then spoke about being called, many times, “too pretty to be Aboriginal”. She explained how it feels to be on the receiving end of such ignorant comments; her explanation understandably focused on how such comments deny or question her proud Indigenous heritage.
However, it was odd to me that no connection was made between that offensive back-handed “compliment” and the other group of people being denigrated by such comments: non-mixed Aboriginal people’s bodies. Bodies that look as far from whiteness and the standards of western ‘beauty’ as possible. The “too pretty to be…” comment exists because Black bodies/features are stigmatised and devalued. It reflects the privileging of bodies that approximate PHYSICAL whiteness (or non-Aboriginality) more than the bodies that don’t; to not mention anti-Blackness in these conversations is therefore to miss the point.
Thankfully though, Nayuka did mention this, and made the connection. As second speaker, she discussed her experiences and interactions on dating App Tinder; she shared anecdotes about having her Aboriginality fetishised by (white) non-Aboriginal men. She talked about being complimented for her brown skin, green eyes, and other mixed features; crucially, though, Nayuka talked about how it is actually her “proximity to whiteness” as an Aboriginal woman of mixed heritage that these kinds of men are attracted to.
In essence, it is COLOURISM; a toxic physical offshoot of WHITE SUPREMACY.
Being the superstar that she is, Nayuka went on to explain how WHITE SUPREMACIST COLOURISM is deeply embedded not just in white people, but in Aboriginal people (and many colonised Black and Brown people in general, I would argue) too. The first time Nayuka heard the “too pretty to be Aboriginal” line, for example, was depressingly from a young Aboriginal man.
This toxin runs deep. It is the internalised white supremacy that PEOPLE OF COLOUR *ourselves* need to uproot and reckon with. In order to do this, physical anti-Blackness (anti-Black bodies, features, hair textures, skin tones and body shapes) needs to be IDENTIFIED and COUNTERED, always.
Correctly identifying physical anti-Blackness in the statement “too pretty to be a…” is part of that.
Nayuka discussed some ways she is doing the work of unlearning colourism and decolonising the way she sees Black bodies; they involve privileging BLACKNESS in her online and offline life. Surrounding yourself with images of Black & Indigenous people, consuming Black & Indigenous media, participating in Black & Indigenous culture, socialising with and loving Black & Indigenous people… is all a part of ridding oneself of the anti-Black conditioning of immersion in a white culture. Within which Black bodies are marginalised, tokenised, fetishised, stigmatised or simply erased.
And it is all so important. Truly. This may sound like a conversation about superficial beauty, but it is actually a conversation about UNLEARNING UNCONSCIOUS (and conscious) WHITE SUPREMACIST BIAS against Black and indigenous bodies – a bias many Black and Brown people also have.
So CENTERING BLACK AND BROWN BODIES – those bodies that do not approximate whiteness – is a way of countering the dehumanisation and denigration of non-white, non-mixed bodies. For decolonising Black and Brown people, it is affirming, empowering, anti-colourism, anti-racism work. We are not merely our bodies, and our identities need not even be related to our bodies… but the fact remains that bodies further away from whiteness are treated and regarded differently than others. The “unlearning” bias and colourism work is about shifting that paradigm and ensuring we are not replicating that toxic bias with what we create, and the choices we make.
That said, there were two counter-arguments that weren’t covered in the talk (or the ensuing Q&A session) that I will get into in my next post: the idea that collective empowerment of women of colour cannot come through beauty pageants and modelling, as Celeste Liddle has argued in the past (I basically agree); and that sometimes representations of Black and Brown beauty created by Black and Brown people can also be fairly conformist and “colonised”, aesthetically speaking (two really basic examples: the use of contour to make noses look thinner, and hair straightening and lightening for those of us with naturally afro-kinky hair.) To be continued soon 🙂
READ NEXT POST: Embracing the Black body (beyond the western aesthetic)
READ ADDITIONAL FOLLOW UP POST: Filed under ‘this is why we have to acknowledge anti-*Blackness* in Australia’
RELATED POST: Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body
‘The fact that they co-host the same show yet only one has been the subject of pointed attacks in the media makes it hard to argue that the problem, from the perspective of long-term TV insiders, isn’t one of race.’
– from ‘Why you should care about the casual racism on television‘; comparing the reaction to Waleed Aly’s Gold Logie nomination to the reaction to colleague Carrie Bickmore’s.
Back in 2010, I wrote this post titled ‘People like us: media representation and social cohesion’. In short, the post is about the importance of seeing the full diversity of a country’s population reflected in the cultural media landscape; how good storytelling and media representation can foster understanding and respect for fellow citizens, and a sense of belonging and inclusion for otherwise marginalised people.
In that post, I quoted something Waleed Aly (whom I have been critical of on various occasions) said in his interview with Andrew Denton on program Enough Rope – about the importance of positive Muslim “role models” and icons in the media and public life, at a time when mistrust and marginalisation of Muslim people had taken root in Australia:
“I think we like to see reflections of ourselves in the public space and Muslims have been really short on role models in the public space in Australia or even in the western world. We’ve had some very successful Muslims. John Ilhan, the late John Ilhan’s a very good example of that. But at the same time his real name was Mustafa and he had to become John to become a success.”
“And when you see him [Bashar Haoli, first top grade Muslim AFL player], out there, and you see him do that, you suddenly for a moment have this belief, this realisation that I could do that, if I had the talent. But the thing that’s stopping me is that I’m no good, not that I happen to be a Muslim or that I come from a Middle Eastern background, and that’s incredibly powerful. It’s so powerful, I don’t think people who don’t have that problem who have never encountered not being represented in the public space in some way understand how debilitating that can be.” [emphasis mine]
Fast foward to April 2016, and public intellectual+professional print/radio/television broadcaster of many years Waleed Aly – along with broadcasting veteran and avant garde icon Lee Lin Chin – have become the FIRST EVER non-white Gold Logie nominees (in a list that includes 6 people). The Logie nominations are awarded based on a popular vote by citizens who care enough to cast votes in this popularity contest.
The response from media gate keepers and segments of the (white) media establishment to the announcement that these two public figures were on the list was… incredibly telling. Karl Stefanovic, 2011 Gold Logie winner who has attempted with some success to put himself forth as an enlightened person in regards to Indigenous relations and gender equality, couldn’t help but betray a sizeable blind spot he has in this pathetic Today show exchange with two other well-paid white public figures:
Ben: “Where is Lisa Wilkinson’s Gold Logie?”
Karl: “Lisa’s too white.”
Ben: “Is that it?”
Karl: “That’s it.”
Lisa: (laughing) “I got a spray tan and everything, still didn’t make it. What can you do?”
Karl: “Logies controversy. Boom.”
In the segment later defended by the host network as not about race, Stefanovic also joked that despite being white “on the outside”, he was “dark on the inside”; then was hailed by co-host Ben Fordham as a trailblazer. Meanwhile, the usual suspects in the media establishment reacted to the announcement of the two highly accomplished non-white broadcasters being nominees as if a political leader had tried to steal an election.
New Matilda published this rebuttal pointing out the rank hypocrisy, inconsistency, racism and Islamophobia that characterised the bizarrely heated (but not surprising) reactions to Aly and Lin Chin being nominated. I just want you to ponder, for one minute, what it might be like to live as a brown-skinned person in a country in which one of the only public figures who looks like you, and that you may identify with – an accomplished, law-abiding centrist intellectual – is attacked based only on his status as a non-white man.
Regardless of what other privileges of citizenship you have, do you think it does an individual’s or community’s psychological state any favours to live in a context in which any success that non-white (or non-majority) people enjoy is denigrated, mocked and blamed on the ego-preserving concept of “reverse discrimination”? Or blamed on affirmative action – an often necessary policy approach to redress well-established pro-white hiring and selection bias? Even when the non-white people in question were actually selected based on popular public vote?
Think about how the reaction to these two media figures might mirror the marginalisation of unapologetically non-majority people in Australian society at large. And I use the term unapologetically in a positive sense. Both Aly and Lin Chin have been on our screens for ages. Lin Chin has endured much abuse for her ethnicity, voice, looks and style over her career; yet continues to kick ass as an avant garde icon. Aly has endured a lot of racist abuse, but continues to speak out against racism and a range of social abuses.
Perhaps the “issue” unconscious racists are having is not that mild-mannered Aly and non-political Lin Chin are not white – I can imagine the same people and news organisation wholeheartedly embracing and supporting a non-white person who attacks others who speak out about racism, cultivates a conventional style and uncritically supports the status quo and nationalism (they gave one such person her own column and regularly consult her for these kinds of opinions).
Maybe the real root to the aversion to Lin Chin and Aly is that they have not shed the things that make them ‘the Other’ in many people’s minds – whilst simultaneously owning their identity as Australians. As it should be.
Interesting fact: the proportion of Australians born overseas has hit a 120-year high (March 2016 ABS statistics) and Screen Australia recently announced a research project to ascertain just how diverse cast and storyline diversity has been in Australian television drama over the last five years. I’ll write about this in an upcoming post.
And I’m sorry this post was late – it’s been a crazy, but intensely creative, week.
As promised, an ever so slightly more cerebral post than the last two.
I have an interest in diversity in the media because I think there is something powerful and terribly underestimated about social inclusion.
Recently I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two young men, about the existence of media networks and television programs set up specifically for and by minorities (sexual, ethnic, disabled, et cetera), both in Australia and throughout the rest of the world. Citing an American example, one of the men deemed it a “double-standard” that a network could be named Black Entertainment Television (BET, a U.S cable network that supposedly provides Black-American “cultural” and entertainment-based programming). His argument was essentially that you would never see a network called “White Entertainment Television”, hence, the double standard. There are numerous problems with that line of reasoning that I wont go into here. Moreover there are plenty of better reasons that I can think of to have issues with BET… but I digress.
Hearing their conversation, I was reminded of comments made by Waleed Aly, spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria, journalist, and rock musician (well…according to Wiki). He made them in an interview with Andrew Denton for an episode of the program Enough Rope that screened on ABC TV in 2008. The interview came a year after the release of his book, People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West.
Andrew asked Waleed about the impact of positive Muslim representation in the media on the way Muslims saw themselves. As many in the Muslim community attested to, the noughties was a difficult time to be a Muslim. In the year 2000, the much publicised and appalling ‘Sydney gang rapes’, reinforced in the minds of many a negative stereotype of Middle Eastern men. After the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Australia sent some 2000 troops to support US and British forces in the subsequent and controversial invasion of Iraq. Back home, an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat (many of whom came from Muslim nations) was met with a surge of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment through ‘middle Australia’ that persists today. The growing Muslim population in some suburbs and consequent plans to build mosques drew fierce condemnation and opposition from some residents. And throughout, some of the middle-aged Aussie kings of talkback radio used their considerable media influence to stir the pot of suspicion and resentment. The cauldron eventually overflowed in 2005 when a mob of drunk dumbasses (who happened to be of Anglo-Celtic descent) turned what actually started out as a civil demonstration about a spate of ugly attacks on locals on the beaches of Cronulla into an even uglier race riot. Which, predictably, sparked a wave of nasty retaliatory attacks by (apparently non-practicing Muslim) dumbasses.
And the karmic mayhem went on.
At the same time though, in 2007, we saw the emergence of the first out and proud practicing Muslim AFL player to debut in the top grade – Bashar Haoli (Essendon FC). And Waleed’s own starring role on Muslim comedy panel show Salaam Café, which screened on Australia’s multicultural and multilingual broadcaster SBS in 2008.
**“I think we like to see reflections of ourselves in the public space and Muslims have been really short on role models in the public space in Australia or even in the western world. We’ve had some very successful Muslims. John Ilhan, the late John Ilhan’s a very good example of that. But at the same time his real name was Mustafa and he had to become John to become a success.”
Waleed went on to comment on the impact Bashar, and his reputation as being both an exceptional athlete and a man of good character and integrity, was having on young Muslims:
**“And when you see him out there, and you see him do that, you suddenly for a moment have this belief, this realisation that I could do that, if I had the talent. But the thing that’s stopping me is that I’m no good, not that I happen to be a Muslim or that I come from a Middle Eastern background, and that’s incredibly powerful. It’s so powerful, I don’t think people who don’t have that problem who have never encountered not being represented in the public space in some way understand how debilitating that can be.”
Not seeing positive reflections of oneself and community – or at least neutral reflections – in the mass media that we are bombarded with everyday can have a profound effect on the psyche of an individual, particularly if they are a part of a minority group that has considerable stigma attached to it, is oppressed or is disadvantaged in some way. If many individuals within a community feel alienated in this way, what do you think that does to the morale in that community? The way their families function? How does it affect the way their youths behave? And how they feel towards the larger, dominant culture?
As a firm believer in individual liberty I favour empowering people – and encouraging self-empowerment and self-responsibility – on an individual level. However, we are all to some degree also affected by a complex mix of external influences that include the ethnic communities we are affiliated with (I include Anglo-Celtic here as an ethnic community). Just as belonging to or fitting into the dominant culture is going to imbue an individual with certain attitudes and a level of tacit confidence and comfort they are likely to take for granted, belonging to a community that is stigmatise, not represented and marginalised is most likely going to affect the psyche of an individual within it and, in turn, the way they see themselves and interact with the wider community.
And that is where positive media representation can help. I’m not talking about whitewashing PR campaigns, or racial quotas for networks. And I am definitely not talking about censorship – the right to offend and be offended is necessary in a free, open society (and something I personally could not live without).
What I am talking about is diversity in the stories and opinions we tell and see through our media… and how that in turn enables us to SEE and HEAR people who might be different from us, who we might never otherwise come into contact with, or know how to engage with, in the “real world”. Stories and media that help create understanding and encourage our better natures. Minority representation can help dispel flawed and dangerous stereotypes, and tells minorities that their stories are valid too, that they do have a voice within the broader community… which, I suspect, would help instill a sense of belonging to that broader community (if you feel welcome and a part of it all, you’re less likely to feel hostile!).
Furthermore, minority representation can help chip away at one of the most dangerous wedges between minorities and the broader society:
But, I’ll save that discussion for the next post.
** from the transcript of Episode 180, Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, available here.