Blackface, Adolf Hitler And A Tiny School In A Remote Australian Country Town

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The school motto at Rowena Public – a tiny school in the far north of NSW – is ‘Respect For All’. And by ‘all’, it’s possible they mean everyone except black people and Jews. Chris Graham reports.

As small schools go in NSW, they don’t get much smaller than Rowena Public, a tiny campus in an equally tiny town in the far north of the state.

Rowena has two teachers, a teaching principal and 25 students. One of those students is Indigenous, according to the MySchools website.

Geographically, Rowena is 140 kilometres west of Moree, a town with a chequered history of race relations of its own – it was the focus of the Freedom Rides in the 1960s, when Aboriginal activists turned up to try and end racial segregation in the wealthy cotton town.

For its part, Rowena enjoys none of Moree’s size, and little of its wealth. It has a population of around 200, a pub, the school of course, a general store and a public swimming pool. But despite its size, Rowena has also managed to put itself firmly on the racism map, after the local school decided to wrap up the 2018 year with a dress up day for students celebrating famous people from history.

And that’s how one student, a young girl, arrived at Rowena Public earlier this month dressed as Adolf Hitler, replete with swastikas and a ridiculous moustache.

A picture from Rowena Public School’s Facebook page, which was closed down this week.

It’s also how a second student, a young boy, turned up the same day dressed in full blackface. He was apparently trying to honour the iconic black American athlete Jesse Owens, who’d they’d recently learned about during history lessons.

Obviously, children are children. They generally don’t mean to do spectacularly racist and/or ignorant things… that’s what their parents are for. On that front, allowing your child to turn up to school dressed in full Nazi regalia, or ‘blacked up’, is pretty hard to fathom, but it’s the actions of the school’s leader, principal Paul Cecil, that make this story truly remarkable.

Not only did Mr Cecil – a teaching principal with responsibility for students from Years 3 to 6 – not send the children home to change, but he posed with them for photographs.

Rowena Public School principal Paul Cecil, posing with the student who turned up in blackface. The picture was posted to the school’s Facebook page, before being taken down, and an apology issued.

Not content that the spectacle should be limited to just his staff, students and the local community, Mr Cecil then posted those photographs to the school’s official Facebook wall.

What followed is entirely predictable – a local implosion, with the school and the page receiving numerous complaints from people throughout the local district, in particular from nearby Walgett and Collarenebri, which both have large Aboriginal populations.

Rowena Public’s Facebook page has now been closed down, but not before the school posted an apology.

“The school unreservedly apologises for two photos that were published yesterday on our Facebook page. They have been removed,” the post reads. “These photos were unacceptable. Rowena Public School is a caring and supportive learning environment. We reject racism in all its forms.”

Well maybe not all its forms. The photos obviously were unacceptable, but presumably it’s okay to come to Rowena Public in blackface or a Nazi uniform, so long as you don’t blog about it?

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It’s a perplexing development – and maybe a strong pointer to the depth of casual Australian racism – when you consider that any reading of the multitude of school newsletters available on Rowena Public’s official website clearly shows a vibrant school with a strong history of creating a safe and nurturing environment for its kids. It’s even more bizarre when you realize that in 2015, staff and students raised $1,500 – no small feat for a town with a population of just a few hundred people – to help a Ugandan education program which teaches children in Africa to read.

In the December 2016 school newsletter, Paul Cecil explained: “School for Life… run an incredible program in Uganda, setting up schools that bring life to kids. This year, the foundation has set up two new schools in the toughest areas of Africa. Our $1500 filled a library (that was empty) with BOOKS. The school is called the Mbazzi Riverside School.”

Mr Cecil did not respond to requests by New Matilda for an interview. A staff member at Rowena Public directed New Matilda to the NSW Department of Education.

A departmental spokesperson said: “Rowena Public School unreservedly apologised for any offence caused by two images posted on Facebook. They were promptly removed.

“The school accepts that they were inappropriate and has been counselled by the Department of Education about the posts.

“All school personnel will participate in anti-racism and cultural awareness training to embed appropriate understandings in all school teaching and learning activities.”

Presumably, that will include suggesting to teaching staff they request students not be sent to school in blackface, or dressed as white supremacists.

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff told J-Wire magazine earlier today:  “While it is deeply concerning those young children – and presumably their parents – felt it was acceptable to dress as Hitler and in blackface, it beggars belief that the school principal endorsed and promoted what they had done. There is clearly a great deal of work to be done at Rowena Public School.

“The principal made an appalling error of judgment, but we acknowledge the appropriate response from the Education Department.”

 

A brief history of blackface

Blackface emerged in the United States partly as a way to mock African Americans, but also as a way to ensure they weren’t employed in the entertainment industry. It’s history is chronicled in this montage produced by Spike Lee in his film Bamboozled.

Contrary to popular belief, Blackface also has a long history in Australia, with travelling minstrel shows mocking Aboriginal people from the early 1900s onwards.

White actors also dressed up in blackface to ensure film companies didn’t have to employ Aboriginal people. The most famous of them is the 1970s television series Boney, about an Aboriginal detective named Napoleon Bonaparte and played in blackface by white New Zealand actor James Laurenson.

As recently as 1992, the series was remade. It began as a pilot film, with white Australian actor Cameron Daddo cast as the lead. It was turned into a 13-episode series but after complaints from Aboriginal leaders, Daddo’s part was rewritten to make him a white man raised by Aboriginal people.

Australia’s apparent ignorance around blackface – or rather Australia’s excuse for its ignorance – officially ended in 2009, when six men in full blackface performed on the ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday Reunion Special’, sparking an international media storm.

The men – calling themselves ‘The Jackson Jive’ and mocking Michael Jackson and his siblings – were competing in a segment known as ‘Red Faces’, where people perform for a panel of celebrity judges.

All of the men were doctors, including a plastic surgeon and a psychiatrist.

One of those judges, American musician Harry Connick Jnr, slammed the performance, attracting massive international scrutiny of Australia’s poor history of race relations.

Almost a decade later (in 2017), Red Symons – an Australian judge for the same segment – continued to defend the performance. In a bizarre interview with an Asian woman, in which Symons asked if she was “yellow”, he described the skit as “alleged blackface” and questioned why there should be a “blanket ban” on it. Symons was the breakfast present on ABC radio in Melbourne until late last year.

Since 2009, there have been countless incidents of Australians dressing in blackface and sparking storms on social media.

Usually, it’s teenagers or adults, but one of the most notorious incidents was in 2016, when a Perth mother sent her young son to a primary school book week parade dressed in full blackface, because he wanted to honour an AFL footballer. Obviously, it had nothing to do with book week, but the school awarded the child first prize regardless.

The woman proudly described the win on her Facebook page: “ … My son had book week parade today. He wanted to go as his idol Nic Naitanui from the west coast Eagles (sic).

“I was a little worried about painting him (so many politically correct extremists these days) he is pastey White and if I just sent him in a wig and footy gear, no one would tell who he was. So I grew a set of balls and painted my boy brown and he looked fanfuckingtastic.

“After being told by everyone on Facebook not to do it and it’s a horrible idea etc, my son won the fucking parade!!!! Parenting win!

“I’m celebrating by having a wine before 12pm. Love love!”

Clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson, a columnist for New Matilda, said the children at the centre of the incident were not to blame, and that this should serve as a “wake up call” schools and parents.

“I think that this incident highlights a significant gap in Australia’s education system. Australia lags well behind the United States, for instance, in school-based programs designed to prevent racism in schools, and to educate parents and children about racism,” Dr Johnson said.

“It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that children learn important values, attitudes, behaviours from the significant adults in their lives, both directly via overt communication, and indirectly by observation. It is not these children’s fault that they have lacked adult guidance and role modelling on what is or is not racially offensive and unacceptable.

“More broadly, these kids aren’t alone in having been let down by adults. A recent review of Australian anti-racism initiatives noted that “research in primary and secondary schools in a number of Australian states has demonstrated how students, parents, and teachers support and perpetuate widely prevalent racist behaviour and attitudes.”

“Parents and educators taking this state of affairs seriously, and stepping up their game, is a child health issue. The review also notes that the psychological and physical effects of racism on children include, “anxiety, depression, and hopelessness; increased alcohol, tobacco, and drug use; lowered self-esteem, self-worth, self-efficacy, and life satisfaction; anger, conduct problems [and]… indicators of metabolic and cardiovascular disease.”

“In short, incidents such as these should act as a wake-up call to Australian educators and parents alike.”

The author of this story Facebooks here, tweets here, and is available by email here.

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Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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