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SocietyMay 10, 2023

Rural sportswoman of the year ‘apologetic’ for blackface photos


Photos of an award-winning shearer in blackface with friends were shared to Facebook, before being deleted about a day later. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.

A world champion sheep shearer recently named New Zealand’s rural sportswoman of the year has apologised after sharing photos to Facebook of herself in blackface over the weekend.

Megan Whitehead, 26, was named the country’s top rural sportswoman at a ceremony in March. It was said at the time that her goal was to become the first woman to shear 700 lambs in one day, having previously made history for a nine-hour solo shear of 661 lambs. “With her impressive achievements and future aspirations, we can’t wait to see what she will accomplish next in this highly competitive industry,” read a blurb by Rural Sports NZ.

In photos originally uploaded to Facebook, and seen by The Spinoff, Whitehead and a pair of friends in Southland can be seen with black faces, faux dreadlocks and wearing clothing with the colours of the Jamaican flag. “This year Becky went to Jamaica and left us behind… so we decided to go too” read the caption on a post featuring Whitehead.

Other photos show one of the women with a fake oversized joint and wearing a T-shirt saying “living the high life” while another was pictured holding a bottle of Jamaican rum.

While Whitehead did not upload the original post herself, she did post a photo in the comments that showed her and another person in blackface and smiling.

Blackface, as this 2019 piece from CNN explained, is more than just painting your skin a darker colour. Dating back to the 19th century, it has its history in white Americans stereotypically depicting and mocking African Americans. Black people were often depicted as lazy and ignorant, almost exclusively for the entertainment of white audiences. And if it was racist and offensive 200 years ago, it’s far worse now.

It’s understood the photos of Whitehead and her friends were shared to Facebook on Saturday afternoon and visible for just over 24 hours before being deleted. According to a concerned member of the public who first approached The Spinoff, the photos may have been tied to the current duck shooting season when people paint their faces in camouflage. “But they contradict that by painting their whole bodies black and brown and wearing brightly coloured Jamaican costumes,” the person, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Screenshots of the Facebook post showed at least one person criticising the group for being racist and “not even trying to hide it”, while other comments were in support. Whitehead herself commented on the photos saying “peace and love”.

The Spinoff attempted to reach Whitehead for comment but received no response. However, in a joint statement, Steve Hollander, the founder of the New Zealand Rural Sports Awards, and Sir David Fagan, the president of Shearing Sports New Zealand, said Whitehead was “embarrassed and apologetic for the pain caused by her actions”.

“Both Shearing Sports New Zealand and the New Zealand Rural Sports Awards support the diversity of rural sports,” the statement said. “Using blackface for fun is hurtful as it reinforces harmful racial stereotypes, and we hope it will soon be consigned to the history books.”

While the decision to wear blackface was “done for a laugh”, Hollander and Fagan both agreed “it was done without understanding the historical context”.

It’s not the first time and, sadly, it probably won’t be the last that someone in New Zealand decides to don the offensive costume and pose for photographs. In 2019, photos surfaced of NZME chief executive Michael Boggs in blackface at a 2015 work function. In 2018, a group of Harcourts employees dressed up as Cameroon athletes to attend a national conference. Stuff even has an article from 2020 titled “All the times New Zealanders thought it was OK to do blackface”, which provides more examples than you would expect (and includes notable New Zealanders like former Bachelor Art Green).

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