Uh-oh! Red Symons has really put his foot in it, hasn’t he? Or has he? Maybe his behaviour while speaking with RN presenter Beverley Wang for an ABC podcast was his cheeky way of challenging Wang’s progressive, culturally imperialistic approach that seeks to view and interpret things to do with “race” exclusively through the particular lens of the American historical experience.
Australians got a taste of how the world is seen when viewed exclusively and peremptorily through this American lens when a harmless KFC ad showing an Australian cricketing fan sharing a bucket of KFC chicken with West Indian cricket fans had to be yanked by KFC after Americans deemed it to be racist.
Not too long before this, Australians were introduced to the term “blackface”, a term relatively few Australians had been familiar with until then, when a harmless skit on the “Red Faces” segment of the Nine Network’s Hey, Hey It’s Saturday show became engulfed in controversy. Again, the controversy stemmed from viewing things through an American lens and applying American racial sensitivities to contexts and experiences far removed from the American one.
At the time of this brouhaha I happened to be living in Brazil and, following the controversy online, I turned to one of my housemates to inform her that there was currently some controversy in Australia simply over some white people painting their faces black. Her bemused reaction suggested that this was rather like suddenly being informed that donning a blonde wig may be deemed offensive.
Indeed at the time I used to see on Brazilian TV a comedy show in which characters routinely appeared in what we now know to call “blackface”, but nobody knew to take offense. In a regular segment on the show, actors portrayed the Obamas, and while the actor portraying Obama himself was black, other actors would go full “blackface”, while the one portraying Michelle, curiously, only went part “blackface”.
When Brazilians do an amateur performance dance to the song “Samba da Nega Maluca” (“Crazy Black Girl’s Samba”), they tend to like to do it in “blackface”. Google the words “nega maluca” and pictures and recipes for chocolate cake appear. The lead singer of the most successful Samba school that parades in the Sambadrome during Rio’s famous Carnival is referred to by all and sundry as “Neguinho da Beija-Flor”, which translates in English to “Blackie of Beija-Flor”. Brazilians, for the most part, do not view things through an American lens.
But they are starting to. In 1976 the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics asked Brazilians to self-identify their appearance. They came up with 134 descriptions of appearance. Given that the progressive, culturally imperialistic worldview that the likes of Beverley Wang preach about considers the American historical experience to be normative, this just will not do. In the American classification scheme there are basically four categories to describe appearance: “white”, “black”, “brown” and, yes, “yellow”. So in the interests of progress, Brazilians need to get with the program.
In 2010 the Lula government enshrined the Racial Equality Statute, in so doing giving the concept of race legal standing for the first time in Brazil’s 500-year history. The problem is, for a country with 500 years of profound miscegenation, it becomes rather difficult to define who is “white” and who is “black”. In the United States, things are much more black and white: one drop of “black” blood makes one “black”, whereas a state of pristine and unspoilt virgin purity is apparently what qualifies one as “white”.
The University of Brasilia, a few years prior to this, was one of the early adopters of racial quotas for “blacks” in emulation of American affirmative action. Since Brazil has not historically subscribed to the concept of hypodescent (Obama, for example, would not be considered “black” as in the US but rather a “mulatto”), it becomes tricky determining where to draw the racial line. This difficulty was highlighted in 2007 when the racial tribunal set up by the University to decide who was eligible for their racial quota decided that one of a pair of identical twins was “black”, and therefore eligible, while the other was “white”, and thus ineligible.
French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant, in their paper entitled “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason”, bewailed this forcible imposition of what they refer to as “the quasi-universalization of the US folk-concept of ‘race’ as a result of a worldwide export of US scholarly categories” on countries like Brazil so far removed from the American experience. As a result, it is practically verboten for Brazilians today to refer to their country as a “racial democracy” as they used to in the past, because this contradicts the inviolable verities of the progressive worldview.
Similarly, New Zealanders used to boast of having the best race relations in the world, given that there has never been any segregation in New Zealand (indeed there are probably no longer any full-blooded Maori left) and Maori have been prominently represented in New Zealand’s military and the government from as far back as the 1800s. New Zealanders are nevertheless under the implicit pressure from these religious police to make little mention of their heterodox history concerning race relations.
If we reject this one-size-fits-all approach that insists on viewing everything exclusively through the lens of America’s particular historical experience, we can begin to view things around the world with a bit more circumspection and with less of a culturally imperialistic impulse to jump to conclusions by outright refusing to consider local context.
Thus, for example, the sight of the Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reynders, in so-called “blackface” as part of the country’s tradition of the Noirauds charity parade should not automatically be interpreted as racist. Anybody who has watched the “Formidable” music video by Belgian musician Stromae, filmed on the streets of Brussels, can see from the people walking by that Belgium is a former colonial power. As the foreign minister, Reynders would maintain close relations with Belgium’s former colonies. In light of these considerations, it is inconceivable that the foreign minister’s actions would carry the same meaning as they would in the US.
But such enforcers of progressive cultural imperialism like Beverley Wang would inflexibly refuse to take such local considerations into account, and would accordingly tar and feather the Belgian foreign minister as if anywhere and everywhere is Selma, Alabama. But Red Symons is from Melbourne, Australia. And perhaps he thinks that the best way to deal with such a one-eyed approach is to take the Mickey.
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