The Strayan Defence: ‘I Didn’t Know It Was Racist’


UPDATE: This story has been updated here… the owners of the balloon caught on tape repeatedly calling it the Golliwog balloon.


A balloon, in full blackface glory, has been flying over Canberra for years. But in 2019, it finally got banned from the Canberra balloon festival. The owners of the balloon are mystified as to why.

Shortly after the end of World War II, the victorious Allies began prosecuting German soldiers and other officials for their participation in war crimes. The courts were staged in the German town of Nuremberg, and spawned the phrase, ‘The Nuremberg defence’.

It goes something like this: ‘I was just following orders’ … which is, to explain why so many Germans participated in the slaughter of about six million Jews.

In Australia, we didn’t slaughter Jews, we just ignored their pleas for asylum (google ‘the Kimberley Scheme’). We also fought the Germans, although not to save the Jews (just to defend Britain). But what has that got to do with blackface, a more benign form of racism, as opposed to murdering people for their religious affiliation?

One of the few outspoken voices in Australia during WWII was William Cooper, an Aboriginal leader who called for Jews to be given asylum. Cooper is memorialised (and celebrated) in Israel, with a plaque in a forest acknowledging his advocacy, when so many other Australians stayed silent.

At the same time, Cooper (and all Aboriginal people) were also the subject of slaughter, and brutal oppression and discrimination. Part of that oppression was blackface – that’s right, Australia’s ‘black minstrel history’ is as deeply embedded in our past as America’s. We just don’t acknowledge it.

Like in America, where blackface was used to mock and denigrate black Americans, and to keep them out of work in films, the same practice was employed in Australia. There are countless cartoons and film skits of Aboriginal people being mocked by white folk in blackface makeup.

But rather than honestly face up to our past, much like the soldiers and officials of Germany, we’ve developed our own Nuremberg Defence. The Strayan Defence: ‘I didn’t know it was racist’.

A variation on this theme is, ‘It’s not racist. You’re making it racist… ’ by pointing out how racist it is.

Welcome to the ongoing, never-ending debate in Australia about blackface. In this debate, there are two distinct periods: There’s ‘before Harry Connick Jnr and Hey Hey It’s Saturday’, and there’s after.

‘Before’ is a period in time – pre-2009 – when you might forgive Australians for being spectacularly ignorant on how deeply offensive blackface and Golliwog dolls really are.

The period post-Hey Hey, however, is an era where no Australian can reasonably excuse their ignorance, so big was the international outcry and media attention on a skit which should make your skin crawl. In case you somehow missed it, here it is.

A search of the Proquest media database reveals that in Australia in recent years, more than 1,800 stories have been published about blackface. But if you somehow missed those as well, here’s just a very small sample of recent examples…. Here, here, here, here and here.

Thus, it’s staggering to see the alarm and surprise from some people over the banning of an enormous embarrassment from the Canberra Balloon Spectacular recently, which had been hovering happily over our nation’s capital for many years.

The balloon, known in the ACT as ‘Gollie’, depicts a Golliwog doll… i.e. it depicts blackface, because that’s what a Golliwog doll is. It’s blackface, in cartoon form for kids.

Over to the Canberra Times, which reported over the weekend:

“When the balloon was banned, disappointed owner Kay Turnbull said her friends and family only ever referred to it by its registered name, Black Magic.”

Which is yet another twist on The Straya Defence: ‘It might depict a Golliwog, but I didn’t called it a Golliwog, other people called it a Golliwog, I called it ‘Black Magic’. So that’s okay.’

Back to the Canberra Times:

“We believe the decision to be not only farcical and completely avoidable but at a more important level worryingly discriminatory,” the volunteer flight team’s statement said.

“We are embarrassed by the banning of Black Magic.

“We are also distressed about the publicising by the ACT government, presumably to assist in justifying its position, of an alternate name for Black Magic that previously was not even know [sic]to most balloonists.”

Translation: This all could have been avoided if everyone just shut up and embraced our blackface balloon.

Fact is, you don’t have to intend to be racist to do something that is clearly racist. If you do, the best response is to own up to it, apologise and commit to do better in future. Or you can just blame the people who called you on it. Another string of The Strayan Defence.

Strap yourselves in folks, like the E.S. N*gger Brown grandstand in Toowoomba, it seems this is going to be another long fight.

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. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.