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Black Face Thought

Tahlia Palmer: Steady Eye

Black Face Thought

Andrew Ryan

Tonight I covered my face in black eye shadow and took a photo of it. The eye shadow was uneven and it highlights the pores, bumps, scars and the beginnings of wrinkles in my skin. The slight sagging that I can attribute to an inconsistent diet and weird sleeping patterns are a little more obvious. My eyes look super green and there is a mattress behind me.

I take self portraits regularly- I suppose I could be considered narcissistic, but I feel more inclined towards thinking I am obsessed with documentation. I take photos of pretty much everything that happens to me and around me, and I want to stay this way for ever. I have a collection of self portraits taken to document the houses that I live in that go back to around 2006. But tonight was different, because the urge to change something about my appearance for a self portrait- that has nothing to do with my location no less- doesn’t happen often, and the black face idea is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Years even.

When I was a teenager, my father went on an exploration of our family tree and discovered that not only are we the result of the standard English, Irish and Scottish migration to Australia a few hundred years ago, but we also have Aboriginal heritage. While he knew nothing about it, his father apparently did. But like so many of that generation, he was ashamed of this part of our family’s history- not because a woman had a child from what we kind of assumed was rape, but because this woman was black. Any trace of darker skin in the family was explained away for years with a fake Spanish heritage.

I figured out from an early age that negative attitudes towards any given group of people increased with the amount of melanin in their skin, and I never cared for the idea. When I learnt about the way this attitude was expressed in early Australian history, I was repulsed. And the instant that I learnt the truth about my paternal lineage, the best I can explain it is “heartbreak”. My brother and I are result of a scheme to rid the country of it’s native population’s skin colour and culture. Black babies were taken from their families and raised by missionaries. When they had their own babies, black and brown, they too were taken away and raised elsewhere. And on it went until you couldn’t tell that a whole bunch of the babies came from an Aboriginal family line any more, and then it was realised that the practice should probably stop lest they have an uprising on their hands or something, and now I am here with contemporary society ready to unquestioningly embrace my milky pale skin, while this horrible guilt about the treatment of the dark skinned people in my recent family tree lays ever present within my frontal lobe.

A friend of mine has a brother with two little daughters. He has a similar genetic make up to mine, and his daughters’ mother does too. One of the little girls has European looks, while the other has more distinctly Aboriginal features and a slightly darker skin tone. My friend told me that when she is looking after the niece with darker skin and they go in to a store, the shopkeepers and/or security guards will, without fail, keep a closer eye on them than when my friend is looking after her paler skinned niece. The girl is about 5 years old. This blatant racism may not be so familiar to those of you living in cities, but out in most of Australian suburbia, a person with darker skin is instantly feared by the white population, and unfortunately for our country, these fearful bigots, whether or not they know that they are racist, make up the giant majority of the voting population.

Say what you like about outdated research into skin colour and evolution and genetic traits, what it boils down to is this: there is no such thing as “race”. There is no “us” and “them”, we are all just humans.

People with dark skin come from a long line of people who lived in an area that required a stronger defence from the sun. The various environmental elements of every group of humans played a part in creating an attitude or style of speaking or facial cues etc that are distinct to that group, and back when we all had to fight each other for food and land usage, these traits had their various pros and cons, which after thousands of years led to a clear victor.

The Europeans started taking over the world, killing tribes who got in their way so they could mine gold or grow tea or whatever, and set themselves up so they could just sit back and watch the food/money roll in. Thanks to them, we don’t have to fight over food or land usage any longer. We have imports and exports, grocery stores, Centrelink, fertilizers, ehow.com… all the things you need to buy and/or grown food. We also live in a period of time in which technology is available that enables us to not have to stay in one place in order to survive. The days of invasion being a legitimately terrifying scenario because they were the fucking Huns or the Vikings and were coming to fuck up your village and kill your children are over. Invasion hasn’t happened in the western world for over 70 years, and when foreigners come to this country in droves it’s either to look at how pretty it is and spend money, make use of our good quality universities, or to escape from natural disaster or homicidal leaders of their own country. They don’t want to kill us or our culture, they want only to better their own lives in a more privileged country than their own, so why is everyone so fucking scared?

Aboriginal people were treated like animals because it was easier to kill them off and steal their land than to spend time learning their language and culture to work out some sort of deal. Uprooting the people from thousands of years of society fucked them up, and introducing booze to this group of already fucked people made it worse. The general consensus among white Australians is that Aboriginal people are a race of no-hoper alcoholics or junkies who don’t deserve all the benefits they are now by law entitled to. A few hundred years of genocide, manipulation and displacement will do that to anyone- they certainly don’t pose a threat to our farm land any longer… so why is everyone still scared?

I think about all of this shit pretty much every time I look in the mirror. I still haven’t figured out my whole identity thing. I have no sense of belonging to any group of people because I feel I wouldn’t be “accepted” by my distant dark skinned family members, and I feel barely an inch of respect for the attitudes and values of most light skinned born and bred Australians.

And that is why I took a black face self portrait tonight.