The spirit of Australia? We’re all in trouble!

Wallabies star Radike Samo with the two fans in blackface, who attended the game courtesy of Qantas.

Wallabies star Radike Samo with the two fans in blackface, who attended the game courtesy of Qantas.

I’VE ALWAYS believed that self-praise is not really any recommendation. Which goes some way to explaining why I’ve never really believed that Qantas is actually ‘the spirit of Australia’.

Until now.

Over the weekend, our iconic airline ran a competition to give away free tickets to the sold-out Bledisloe Cup at Lang Park in Brisbane.

All you had to do was tell Qantas, via its Twitter account, “how you will show your support for the Wallabies at the match”.

Enter two silly white boys, some black face paint, and another ‘international incident’.

Brisbanite Charles Butler promised Qantas he would “…dress as Radike Samo. Compete with Afro Wig, Aus rugby kit and facepaint”.

Samo, for those who don’t know, is Fijian by birth.

It’s at that point that alarm bells should have rung for the keepers of the Australian spirit.

Instead, I think I can confidently predict that the noise emanating from Qantas’ marketing headquarters was not so much ‘clanging bells’ as it was the sound of thousands of synapses misfiring in the brain of a Qantas employee who’s clearly spent far too much time in close proximity to the fumes from aviation fuel.

Thus, when the boys turned up to Lang Park, replete with big black wigs and their faces and arms painted black, Qantas tweeted in reply: “Looks like our Twitter winners of the Bledisloe Cup tix lived up to their promise! Good work.”

Good work is one way to describe it.

WTF? would be another.

By morning, Qantas’ Twitter account was under siege from angry followers.

Because not only did Qantas award the tickets to the blackface boys, but they posted evidence of their joint enterprise in redneckery on their Twitter page.

What followed was a very swift, and apparently genuine, apology.

Or at least, that’s how it seemed. But by late evening, as the story continued to gather momentum, Qantas did what some people under pressure unfortunately do when they’re in a hole.
They kept digging.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported overnight: “When Qantas spokeswoman Sophia Connelly was contacted by the Herald yesterday, she said: ”We apologise that the photo … offended some people.” She later rang back with a statement provided to Qantas by Samo that said he did not know what all the fuss was about.

”These guys were actually paying me a tribute. It was a bit of fun, and I think they regarded me as their favourite Wallaby. I don’t have an issue with it at all, I was glad to be in a photo with them.”

Which could equally be read as ‘We know that what we did was bad. And when we say bad, we mean good.’

The Qantas media strategy seems to pre-suppose that Samo is the only one who could possibly be offended by the stunt.

Which is not unlike videoing some baggage handlers beating the crap out of Santa Claus, and then publishing a statement from the North Pole saying it was all just a bit of fun.

The point being, imaginary Santa might have enjoyed the lark, but the children who saw the video probably didn’t.

For his part, Samo, of course, is entitled to be offended – or not – at whatever or whomever he likes.

I think he probably should remember, however, that the very reason he is able to play sport at an elite level today is because many people of colour who came before him railed against precisely this sort of ignorance.

As for Qantas, call me picky, but that a major sponsor of the Wallabies should contact a black player and ask him to issue a statement of support after they did something overtly racist – for which they had already apologised unreservedly – seems a little, well, disingenuous.

Startling even. Although not as startling as two white boys in blackface turning up to an international sporting event (with a seating capacity of 52,000), being allowed entry, and then walking around without getting clocked by a member of the crowd.

Although, this is Queensland.

John Howard wanted Australians to become “relaxed and comfortable”, but I doubt even he could have predicted just how relaxed we’d end up. Which is really the point here. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we have a problem people.

The last time we all had a collective national chuckle at a group of dufi (the plural, I believe for more than one dufus) strutting around in blackface, it ended up as an international news story that raged for weeks.

The damage that the ‘Hey, Hey It’s Saturday’ Red Faces skit did to Australia’s international reputation was not insignificant.

And yet our overwhelming national response? Meh, storm in a teacup.

Like it or not, Australians are increasingly viewed by the rest of the world as a bunch of backward bigots. If the whole world were a neighbourhood, then we’re Cronulla.

We can pretend that’s not a problem if we like, but of course denial is what got us here in the first place.

Our nation has one of the worst records on earth in the treatment of people of colour. Our first major act of parliament in 1901 was to introduce the white Australia policy, a piece of legislation that endured until the 1970s.

And this from the mouth of our first prime minister, Edmund Barton, when he introduced it: “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.”

In the 1960s, when American firms were introducing positive discrimination programs aimed at boosting the number of African Americans in their employ, Australia was only just repealing the Flora and Fauna Act, under which Aboriginal people had been forced to live for generations.

We are, it’s fair to say, a little behind the rest of the world on this stuff folks. And it’s high time we caught up.

Like many other stories of Australian redneckery, this one will peter out relatively quickly.

Qantas will certainly be hoping so, because its flights to the United States – where blackface is almost considered a crime – are among the more profitable of its international routes (and Hurricane Irene might help on that front, which is ironic when you think about it, because while it’s probably going to help distract the American media from the issue and save Qantas a bit of skin, the inclement weather also caused widespread cancellations across the airline industry).

Back home, most Australians will probably just miss the point entirely, or perhaps work themselves into a lather and scream blue murder about the “PC Police ruining the world”.

But the fact is, this has nothing to do with political correctness. It’s about basic common sense.
Blackface is offensive. It was used to depict black people – particularly African Americans – as dumb and oafish, and to keep them out of employment in theatres and movies.

In short, it was racist. Always was, always will be.

If ignorance is no excuse when it comes to breaking the law (and racially vilifying people is, last time I checked, still an offence) then given the amount of publicity afforded this issue in recent years, it should be no excuse here either.

Indeed, it’s the cause.

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