An Australian Rules Football (AFL) club had to apologize this week after three of its players donned full-body blackface to impersonate Venus and Serena Williams, as well as a Kenyan-born AFL player, Aliir Aliir.
The photos were taken last week during “Mad Monday,” a celebratory day marking the end of the AFL season. According to the Huffington Post, the photos surfaced on Facebook on Thursday, prompting a swift outcry—as well as defenses of the “costumes.
The players, who weren’t identified in either the Huffington Post article or in Australian Broadcasting Corporation report about the incident, play for the Penguin Football Club in Tasmania. The club told the Huffington Post in a written statement that officials weren’t aware players “intended to dress in this manner,” adding that the costumes were “unacceptable in this day and age.”
A spokesperson for the club told the ABC the club “will be working with the league and club to get more information and to see how we can assist in providing education to the players.”
As the Huffington Post reports, while the three players have been reprimanded and apologized for the racist costumes, the Penguin Football Club also offered a (predictable) defense of the players, saying the trio’s “actions were never intended to be racist in any way” and “all they meant to do was dress as one of their sporting idols.”
But supposing that is true—when it comes to racist behavior, intent doesn’t much matter. The term “racist” isn’t an opinion or a judgment—though it’s often treated as such—it’s also a descriptor of behavior. Objectively racist actions do exist, and blackface is certainly one of them.
While the term “blackface” and its practice is most heavily associated with the U.S., it certainly occurs outside of America (because anti-blackness and racism, in a world shaped by colonization, knows no borders). Australia itself has a brutal history of colonization: as with the U.S., the commonwealth forced indigenous people into schools rife with sexual and physical abuse in order to destroy their cultures. Aborigines weren’t considered Australian citizens until 1967, and in certain parts of Australia, they couldn’t own property until 1975.
And that racism isn’t consigned to Australia’s past. As the ABC writes, there have been myriad high-profile incidents of blackface in the country—but despite an increase in public shaming around the behavior, many Australians still haven’t learned their lesson.
Tasmanian Aboriginal activist and former Australian football player Michael Mansell told ABC the damaging message has already been sent, and not just to indigenous Australians.
“There are more and more immigrants coming to Australia, to start a new life. They see this sort of behavior and wonder what they’ve migrated to,” Mansell said.
“How many young Aboriginal players would want to go now to the Penguin Football Club or be part of the NWFL if this is the sort of attitude that is allowed to happen?”