Darkness is often characterised as something that warrants heightened caution and scrutiny – signifying increased danger and risk. Within settler-colonial settings such as Australia, cautionary and negative connotations of darkness are projected upon Black people and their bodies, forming part of continuing colonial regimes of power (Moreton-Robinson). Negative stereotypes of “dark” continues to racialise all Indigenous peoples. In Australia, Indigenous peoples are both Indigenous and Black regardless of skin colour, and this plays out in a range of ways, some of which will be highlighted within this article. This article demonstrates that for Indigenous peoples, associations of fear and danger are built into the structural mechanisms that shape and maintain colonial understandings of Indigenous peoples and their bodies. It is this embodied form of darkness, and its negative connotations, and responses that we explore further.
Figure 1: Megan Cope’s ‘I’m not afraid of the Dark’ t-shirt (Fredericks and Heemsbergen 2021)
Responding to the anxieties and fears of settlers that often surround Indigenous peoples, Quandamooka artist and member of the art collective ProppaNow, Megan Cope, has produced a range of t-shirts, one of which declares “I’m not afraid of the Dark” (fig. 1). The wording ‘reflects White Australia’s fear of blackness’ (Dark + Dangerous). Exploring race relations through the theme of “darkness”, we begin by discussing how negative connotations of darkness are represented through everyday lexicons and how efforts to shift prejudicial and racist language are often met with defensiveness and resistance. We then consider how fears towards the dark translate into everyday practices, reinforced by media representations. The article considers how stereotype, conjecture, and prejudice is inflicted upon Indigenous people and reflects white settler fears and anxieties, rooting colonialism in everyday language, action, and norms.
The Language of Fear
Indigenous people and others with dark skin tones are often presented as having a proclivity towards threatening, aggressive, deceitful, and negative behaviours. This works to inform how Indigenous peoples are “known” and responded to by hegemonic (predominantly white) populations. Negative connotations of Indigenous people are a means of reinforcing and legitimising the falsity that European knowledge systems, norms, and social structures are superior whilst denying the contextual colonial circumstances that have led to white dominance. In Australia, such denial corresponds to the refusal to engage with the unceded sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples or acknowledge Indigenous resistance.
Language is integral to the ways in which dominant populations come to “know” and present the so-called “Other”. Such language is reflected in digital media, which both produce and maintain white anxieties towards race and ethnicity. When part of mainstream vernacular, racialised language – and the value judgments associated with it – often remains in what Moreton-Robinson describes as “invisible regimes of power” (75). Everyday social structures, actions, and habits of thought veil oppressive and discriminatory attitudes that exist under the guise of “normality”. Colonisation and the dominance of Eurocentric ways of knowing, being, and doing has fixated itself on creating a normality that associates Indigeneity and darkness with negative and threatening connotations. In doing so, it reinforces power balances that presents an image of white superiority built on the invalidation of Indigeneity and Blackness.
White fears and anxieties towards race made explicit through social and digital media are also manifest via subtle but equally pervasive everyday action (Carlson and Frazer; Matamoros-Fernández). Confronting and negotiating such fears becomes a daily reality for many Indigenous people. During the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, which extended to Australia and were linked to deaths in custody and police violence, African American poet Saul Williams reminded his followers of the power of language in constructing racialised fears (saulwilliams). In an Instagram post, Williams draws back the veil of an uncontested normality to ask that we take personal responsibility over the words we use. He writes:
here’s a tip: Take the words DARK or BLACK in connection to bad, evil, ominous or scary events out of your vocabulary. We learn the stock market crashed on Black Monday, we read headlines that purport “Dark Days Ahead”. There’s “dark” or “black” humour which implies an undertone of evil, and then there are people like me who grow up with dark skin having to make sense of the English/American lexicon and its history of “fair complexions” – where “fair” can mean “light; blond.” OR “in accordance with rules or standards; legitimate.” We may not be fully responsible for the duplicitous evolution of language and subtle morphing of inherited beliefs into description yet we are in full command of the words we choose even as they reveal the questions we’ve left unasked.
Like the work of Moreton-Robinson and other scholars, Williams implores his followers to take a reflexive position to consider the questions often left unasked. In doing so, he calls for the transcendence of anonymity and engagement with the realities of colonisation – no matter how ugly, confronting, and complicit one may be in its continuation.
In the Australian context this means confronting how terms such as “dark”, “darkie”, or “darky” were historically used as derogatory and offensive slurs for Aboriginal peoples. Such language continues to be used today and can be found in the comment sections of social media, online news platforms, and other online forums (Carlson “Love and Hate”). Taking the move to execute personal accountability can be difficult. It can destabilise and reframe the ways in which we understand and interact with the world (Rose 22). For some, however, exposing racism and seemingly mundane aspects of society is taken as a personal attack which is often met with reactionary responses where one remains closed to new insights (Whittaker). This feeds into fears and anxieties pertaining to the perceived loss of power.
These fears and anxieties continue to surface through conversations and calls for action on issues such as changing the date of Australia Day, the racialised reporting of news (McQuire), removing of plaques and statues known to be racist, and requests to change placenames and the names of products. For example, in 2020, Australian cheese producer Saputo Dairy Australia changed the name of it is popular brand “Coon” to “Cheer Tasty”. The decision followed a lengthy campaign led by Dr Stephen Hagan who called for the rebranding based on the Coon brand having racist connotations (ABC). The term has its racist origins in the United States and has long been used as a slur against people with dark skin, liking them to racoons and their tendency to steal and deceive. The term “Coon” is used in Australia by settlers as a racist term for referring to Aboriginal peoples. Claims that the name change is example of political correctness gone astray fail to acknowledge and empathise with the lived experience of being treated as if one is dirty, lazy, deceitful, or untrustworthy. Other brand names have also historically utilised racist wording along with imagery in their advertising (Conor). Pear’s soap for example is well-known for its historical use of racist words and imagery to legitimise white rule over Indigenous colonies, including in Australia (Jackson).
Like most racial epithets, the power of language lies in how the words reflect and translate into actions that dehumanise others. The words we use matter. The everyday “ordinary” world, including online, is deeply politicised (Carlson and Frazer “They Got Filters”) and comes to reflect attitudes and power imbalances that encourage white people to internalise the falsity that they are superior and should have control over Black people (Conor). Decisions to make social change, such as that made by Saputo Dairy Australia, can manifest into further white anxieties via their ability to force the confrontation of the circumstances that continue to contribute to one’s own prosperity. In other words, to unveil the realities of colonialism and ask the questions that are too often left in the dark.
Lived Experiences of Darkness
Colonial anxieties and fears are driven by the fact that Black populations in many areas of the world are often characterised as criminals, perpetrators, threats, or nuisances, but are rarely seen as victims. In Australia, the repeated lack of police response and receptivity to concerns of Indigenous peoples expressed during the Black Lives Matter campaign saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets to protest. Protestors at the same time called for the end of police brutality towards Indigenous peoples and for an end to Indigenous deaths in custody. The protests were backed by a heavy online presence that sought to mobilise people in hope of lifting the veil that shrouds issues relating to systemic racism. There have been over 450 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to die in custody since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 (The Guardian). The tragedy of the Indigenous experience gains little attention internationally.
The negative implications of being the object of white fear and anxiety are felt by Indigenous and other Black communities daily. The “safety signals” (Daniella Emanuel) adopted by white peoples in response to often irrational perceptions of threat signify how Indigenous and other Black peoples and communities are seen and valued by the hegemony. Memes played out in social media depicting “Karens” – a term that corresponds to caricaturised white women (but equally applicable to men) who exhibit behaviours of entitlement – have increasing been used in media to expose the prevalence of irrational racial fears (also see Wong). Police are commonly called on Indigenous people and other Black people for simply being within spaces such as shopping malls, street corners, parks, or other spaces in which they are considered not to belong (Mohdin). Digital media are also commonly envisioned as a space that is not natural or normal for Indigenous peoples, a notion that maintains narratives of so-called Indigenous primitivity (Carlson and Frazer).
Media connotations of darkness as threatening are associated with, and strategically manipulated by, the images that accompany stories about Indigenous peoples and other Black peoples. Digital technologies play significant roles in producing and disseminating the images shown in the media. Moreover, they have a “role in mediating and amplifying old and new forms of abuse, hate, and discrimination” (Matamoros-Fernández and Farkas). Daniels demonstrates how social media sites can be spaces “where race and racism play out in interesting, sometimes disturbing, ways” (702), shaping ongoing colonial fears and anxieties over Black peoples.
Prominent footballer Adam Goodes, for example, faced a string of attacks after he publicly condemned racism when he was called an “Ape” by a spectator during a game celebrating Indigenous contributions to the sport (Coram and Hallinan). This was followed by a barrage of personal attacks, criticisms, and booing that spread over the remaining years of his football career. When Goodes performed a traditional war dance as a form of celebration during a game in 2015, many turned to social media to express their outrage over his “confrontational” and “aggressive” behaviour (Robinson). Goodes’s affirmation of his Indigeneity was seen by many as a threat to their own positionality and white sensibility. Social media were therefore used as a mechanism to control settler narratives and maintain colonial power structures by framing the conversation through a white lens (Carlson and Frazer “They Got Filters”).
Indigenous peoples in other highly visible fields have faced similar backlash. In 1993, Elaine George was the first Aboriginal person to feature on the cover of Vogue magazine, a decision considered “risky” at the time (Singer). The editor of Vogue later revealed that the cover was criticised by some who believed George’s skin tone was made to appear lighter than it actually was and that it had been digitally altered. The failure to accept a lighter skin colour as “Aboriginal” exposes a neglect to accept ethnicity and Blackness in all its diversity (Carlson and Frazer “They Got Filters”; Carlson “Love and Hate”). Where Adam Goodes was criticised for his overt expression of Blackness, George was critisised for not being “black enough”.
It was not until seventeen years later that another Aboriginal model, Samantha Harris, was featured on the cover of Vogue (Marks). While George inspired and pathed the way for those to come, Harris experienced similar discrimination within the industry and amongst the public (Carson and Ky). Singer Jessica Mauboy (in Hornery) also explains how her identity was managed by others. She recalls,
I was pretty young when I first received recognition, and for years I felt as though I couldn't show my true identity. What I was saying in public was very dictated by other people who could not handle my sense of culture and identity. They felt they had to take it off my hands.
Mauboy’s experience not only demonstrates how Blackness continues to be seen as something to “handle”, but also how power imbalances play out. Scholar Chelsea Watego offers numerous examples of how this occurs in different ways and arenas, for example through relationships between people and within workplaces. Bargallie’s scholarly work also provides an understanding of how Indigenous people experience racism within the Australian public service, and how it is maintained through the structures and systems of power.
The media often represents communities with large Indigenous populations as being separatist and not contributing to wider society and problematic (McQuire). Violence, and the threat of violence, is often presented in media as being normalised. Recently there have been calls for an increased police presence in Alice Springs, NT, and other remotes communities due to ongoing threats of “tribal payback” and acts of “lawlessness” (Sky News Australia; Hildebrand). Goldberg uses the phrase “Super/Vision” to describe the ways that Black men and women in Black neighbourhoods are continuously and erroneously supervised and surveilled by police using apparatus such as helicopters and floodlights.
Simone Browne demonstrates how contemporary surveillance practices are rooted in anti-black domination and are operationalised through a white gaze. Browne uses the term “racializing surveillance” to describe a ”technology of social control where surveillance practices, policies, and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race and exercise a ‘power to define what is in or out of place’” (16). The outcome is often discriminatory treatment to those negatively racialised by such surveillance. Narratives that associate Indigenous peoples with darkness and danger fuel colonial fears and uphold the invisible regimes of power by instilling the perception that acts of surveillance and the restrictions imposed on Indigenous peoples’ autonomy are not only necessary but justified.
Such myths fail to contextualise the historic colonial factors that drive segregation and enable a forgetting that negates personal accountability and complicity in maintaining colonial power imbalances (Riggs and Augoustinos). Inayatullah and Blaney (165) write that the “myth we construct calls attention to a darker, tragic side of our ethical engagement: the role of colonialism in constituting us as modern actors.” They call for personal accountability whereby one confronts the notion that we are both products and producers of a modernity rooted in a colonialism that maintains the misguided notion of white supremacy (Wolfe; Mignolo; Moreton-Robinson).
When Indigenous and other Black peoples enter spaces that white populations don’t traditionally associate as being “natural” or “fitting” for them (whether residential, social, educational, a workplace, online, or otherwise), alienation, discrimination, and criminalisation often occurs (Bargallie; Mohdin; Linhares). Structural barriers are erected, prohibiting career or social advancement while making the space feel unwelcoming (Fredericks; Bargallie). In workplaces, Indigenous employees become the subject of hyper-surveillance through the supervision process (Bargallie), continuing to make them difficult work environments. This is despite businesses and organisations seeking to increase their Indigenous staff numbers, expressing their need to change, and implementing cultural competency training (Fredericks and Bargallie).
As Barnwell correctly highlights, confronting white fears and anxieties must be the responsibility of white peoples. When feelings of shock or discomfort arise when in the company of Indigenous peoples, one must reflexively engage with the reasons behind this “fear of the dark” and consider that perhaps it is they who are self-segregating. Mohdin suggests that spaces highly populated by Black peoples are best thought of not as “black spaces” or “black communities”, but rather spaces where white peoples do not want to be. They stand as reminders of a failed colonial regime that sought to deny and dehumanise Indigenous peoples and cultures, as well as the continuation of Black resistance and sovereignty.
In working towards improving relationships between Black and white populations, the truths of colonisation, and its continuing pervasiveness in local and global settings must first be confronted. In this article we have discussed the association of darkness with instinctual fears and negative responses to the unknown. White populations need to reflexively engage and critique how they think, act, present, address racism, and respond to Indigenous peoples (Bargallie; Moreton-Robinson; Whittaker), cultivating a “decolonising consciousness” (Bradfield) to develop new habits of thinking and relating. To overcome fears of the dark, we must confront that which remains unknown, and the questions left unasked. This means exposing racism and power imbalances, developing meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples, addressing structural change, and implementing alternative ways of knowing and doing. Only then may we begin to embody Megan Cope’s message, “I’m not afraid of the Dark”.
We thank Dr Debbie Bargallie for her feedback on our article, which strengthened the work.
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