January 26 is always a hard day for First Nations peoples, says Carissa Lee. And as the ‘Cheesegate’ scandal at Queensland Theatre reveals, our theatre spaces are still unsafe
Content warning for First Nations people and People of Colour: this post contains references to racist statements.
I hate this time of year. A new year always begins with “woohoo, new year, new beginnings and whatnot”, but then I remember that Invasion Day is coming up. I have to deal with the awkward interactions when well-meaning white people invite me to their parties (yes, it still happens). And then there’s the waves of racism in the leadup to January 26.
Topics come up in social and regular media that divide people, with some of us losing friends over Invasion Day, or the racism towards Adam Goodes, or basically anything involving race relations. This year we have the same “debates”: some douchebag making racist comments at the cricket on and off the field, or the usual stuff about whether or not Invasion Day should be acknowledged. Our Prime Minister had a cow when Cricketing Australia decided that they’d no longer be acknowledging January 26 as Australia Day. Bettina Ardnt decided to give her (unqualified on so many levels) opinion on First Nations women in the Northern Territory, and Liberal MP Andrew Laming decided to have a big old racist time about the Invasion Day/Australia Day debate.
The latest bee in the nation’s bonnet is the much overdue name change of some cheese. First Nations academic Dr Stephen Hagan fought for 21 years to get the name changed from C**n – a racial term originating from a black caricature – and it was announced last year that the name would be changed. In a public statement, Saputo, the dairy company that owns the cheese, said: “We believe we all share in the responsibility to eliminate racism in all its forms and we feel this is an important step we must take to uphold this commitment”. Unfortunately, not everyone shares that sentiment.
Recently some Queensland theatre professionals decided to put in their two cents about the name change of C**n cheese on Facebook. Queensland Theatre’s publicist complained about the change of name, and the wife of a major arts centre CEO who is a mentor and teacher in the performing arts industry, claimed that she will continue to use the original name regardless, saying the “world’s gone mad…” A Queensland actor claimed that other name changes for cultural sensitivity were unnecessary, adding in the age-old complaint, “so does that mean we change every word that offends people?”
It might seem like a storm in a teacup, but First Nations casts and creatives are not safe or free to express ourselves when we know people like that are in the room.
When people began to criticise the racism of their publicist on Facebook, QTC’s social media started deleting comments. They also released a statement saying that they have ended their working relationship with the person who had made the comments.
This spat reveals that the general public’s response to the cheese’s name change has so far been … not ideal. For starters: how fucked is it that reporters and publishing platforms are acknowledging that the name is being changed because it’s a racial slur, but keep saying the fucking word. Probably one of the worst things about the name change is that I’ve never seen that damn word in the media so much. Why can’t news platforms follow NITV’s lead and blur out the word?
On 2GB 873AM, talkback host Chris Smith claimed Hagan is … wait for it … entitled, and demanded, “Who does this twat think he is?” Hagan has received hate mail and threats from racists, including extreme right wing and Nazi language.
First Nations people deal with racist shit a lot, but at this time of year the tension of the approaching date has us feeling more on edge, as whitefellas get more defensive and feel the need to remind us that they’ve essentially won that fight. Because January 26 is still acknowledged as a day of celebration, and it’s mostly at the discretion of decent people to choose not to celebrate this day, but to acknowledge the atrocities of colonisation.
I can’t believe this latest debate is the much overdue change of the name of an iconic cheese.
As someone who grew up being called that word by redneck white kids, I’m not ashamed to say I was over the moon to hear this news, and a lot of First Nations people have been happy about this as well. Indigenous activist Noel Walker said it is a positive change, after dealing with a life of being called derogatory comments, including c**n.
Once a word or act has been given racial context, and it’s made clear why it’s harmful, people should stop doing it. Otherwise from that point forward, you can’t claim ignorance about its context. You can’t decide what is and isn’t offensive if you’re never on the receiving end of racism. Although it’s pretty annoying when whitefellas decide we’re the ones being offensive or “divisive” when we suggest something like maybe a day of mass genocide isn’t the best day to celebrate.
I actually like the new name of the cheese – Cheer – although some people think it’s a bit daggy. I think it’s cute.
Every time I see racism online, my heart hurts. I want to crawl into bed and lament the shitty state of a white-dominant world. But when I get DMs and see tweets and other posts from Mob, find opportunities to work with First Nations companies, and have wonderful allies who support me when I want to vent, I know we’re slowly getting there.
I makes me so angry knowing that First Nations people are nervous to walk into rehearsal rooms, onto stages, onto footy fields, out into the world, because we’re expected to co-exist with people who want the right to say c**n or to make jokes about petrol sniffing. The voices spouting hatred always seem to be the loudest.
With more people acknowledging the sadness of Invasion Day, more of our stories taking over stages and screens, and policymakers starting to recognise the importance of First Nations views and knowledge, we are turning the argument around. It doesn’t matter if racist folks own theatre spaces, critique shows or act alongside us, because audiences and performers who see the importance of First Nations people and other cultures are beginning to outnumber them. They’ll have to keep up or they’ll get left behind, remembered for nothing more than their hate.