BROWNFACE editorial

By | 1 February 2021

I was 12 and in Year 7 when Chris Lilley’s mockumentary Summer Heights High aired on ABC for the first time. A few weeks after, an Anglo-Australian classmate – who looked like Eminem – came to school in a tupenu whilst strumming on a ukulele. He told everyone he was an honorary Fob. When I tried to explain to him that he was pālangi, a White person, he just flicked back his blond hair. ‘If Chris Lilley can do it, I can do it.’

Chris Lilley, an Anglo-Australian comedian, is best known for his shows that depict gay men, high school students of various racial backgrounds, Asian mothers, African American rappers and gossips. He has donned brown and black face paint, afro and blonde wigs and even slanted his eyes to portray these characters through racial and gendered stereotypes.

This issue of Cordite Poetry Review in particular focuses on the racist act of Brownface, especially in Australia. Brownface stems from the dehumanisation of Black people in the form of Blackface. Award-winning Afro-Caribbean-Australian author Maxine Beneba Clarke writes that Blackface was created when ‘White performers liberally applied black greasepaint or shoe polish and used distorted dialogue, exaggerated accents and grotesque movements to caricature people of African descent’ in the name of ‘art’.

Brownface and Blackface also disguises itself as many micro-aggressions: a Māui Halloween costume, spray tan, golliwogs, The Kardashians, ‘Australia Day’, AAVE and other forms of cultural appropriation.

In this 100th edition of poets across the globe come together to speak back to, reflect on and dismantle the systems of racism and White supremacy that have dictated our lives, our stories and our cultures. Award-winning Wiradjuri poet, filmmaker and educator Jazz Money calls out the White man’s shit. 2021 Peter Porter Poetry Prize winner, Sara Saleh, reminds us how colonisation and illegal occupation also has roots in the history of Brownfacing. Tokelauan and Fijian storyteller Emele Ugavule finds comfort in the Ancestors. Sāmoan Australian poet Christine Afoa struggles between her culture and White men.

As the editor, I was astounded and humbled to have accomplished and award-winning poets such as Annie Te Whiu (Te Rarawa), Eileen Chong, Thuy On, Rashida Murphy, Saba Vasefi and Yu Ouyang contribute. As a student of these writers, I am honoured to have their words grace and elevate this edition.

Cordite 100: BROWNFACE is also blessed to published perspectives from Aotearoa – where Māori and Pasifika voices have guided us in Australia to learn how to be empowered by our faces and voices. Dr Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Atiawa, Taranaki) centres us with a small yet powerful e-chapbook and Tongan, Niuean and Sāmoan poet and playwright Leki Jackson-Bourke confronts Brownface like a true Islander.

From Australia to Aotearoa to the Philippines to India and to the United States of America, we declare: If Chris Lilley can do it, we can undo it.

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