Seeing racism where it isn’t

Some people are just too anxious about race and racists. At The Stump, Sophie Black (Crikey‘s deputy editor) writes about last night’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday reunion Harry Connick Jr protest against a ‘Jackson Jive’ Red Faces sketch. Connick’s problem was that the performers had blacked-out faces, which has a cultural meaning in the US that it does not here. But Black sees more sinister potential:

Ray [Hadley] should ask Daryl [Somers] this question over lunch – do Channel 9 capitalise on this incredibly negative publicity by taking the Howard on Hanson approach? Don’t condone any racist undertones, but by all means, exploit the ignited base. Pit the PC snobs against the true blue battlers.

It’s the old assumption that racism is a big part of the Australian psyche, with any reaction to an issue with a racial or ethnic angle evidence for this nasty undercurrent in Australian society, one unscrupulous politicians and – it seems – TV entertainers are just waiting to exploit.

But in this case, if there hadn’t been a Red Faces judge from the old slave-holding, black-lynching American south it’s unlikely there would have been any ‘race’ controversy.

The joke was in the not-very-good-but-funny-as-a-result impression of the Jackson Five’s dance moves, the same basic joke that runs across many similar acts (such as the kid Elvis impersonator clip they also showed). It wasn’t making fun of black people in general, and it wasn’t even making fun of the Jackson Five in particular. These acts are more homage than ridicule.

Impersonators changing their skin colour to look more like the original act is incidental to the impersonation; it doesn’t make race the joke. The only possible ethnic commentary angle was that the person playing Michael Jackson – who is ethnically Indian – coloured his face white, a reference to the late entertainer’s fading skin colour. But if this had any real meaning, it was that Jackson shouldn’t have worried about having dark skin.

I did not realise until I first went to the US that there is sensitivity to a near-paranoid state about white-black relations. The Hey Hey team have dealt with many Americans and should have thought about how an American judge might react to this sketch. But this is cross-cultural misunderstanding, not racism by the performers or the audience that enjoyed the sketch.

27 Responses to “Seeing racism where it isn’t

  • 1
    JC
    October 8th, 2009 13:40

    The issue of race/racism has now been so abused that it has losing its meaning to a large extent and I reckon that soon enough it will be ridiculed, which is actually unfortunate.

    I think the low point is now where Americans are being accused of racism if they are objecting against the proposed health care reforms and the tea party protests. It really has become so pathetic. Some of our not so bright pundits and bloggers are now using that alleged nexus.

    The worst I’ve seen is racism being linked to AGW.

  • 2
    Rajat Sood
    October 8th, 2009 14:14

    I agree Andrew. Where do you draw the line – is wearing an afro wig without the skin blackening also racist? From what I’ve read on various newspaper websites, many people thought that the Hey Hey skit evoked black minstrels, which they thought was offensive. But maybe as a person of Indian background who used to try to imitate Michael Jackson’s moves (in the ’80s) I am conflicted…

  • 3
    Matt in the Riverina
    October 8th, 2009 14:32

    This is merely another example of the irredeemably racist nature of Howard’s Australia … Oh, hang on, Howard’s gone, maybe it is Rudd’s dog whistling that has brought back the “blackface” minstrels.

    Seriously, while this may not have been intentionally racist and there was certainly no desire to offend, it was bloody stupid. Even though I live out in the back blocks of rural NSW, I was aware that blackface performances were no longer PC (and rightly so). The bright sparks at Channel 9 should have known better and deserve the brickbats they have been given.

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    October 8th, 2009 14:50

    Rajat – I really want to see you do those Michael Jackson moves:)

  • 5
    M
    October 8th, 2009 15:51

    Several issues come up from this.

    1. They did almost exactly the same thing 20 years ago and it was fine.
    2. The overly black make-up has a history in the US (many years ago) of humiliating black people with dumb/ignorant characters.
    3. People are only allowed to invoke racial humour about their own race or white people.
    4. If they had of painted themselves black and done a bad Youthu Yindi impersonation how would people have reacted??
    5. Remember when Sam Newman put on the black face paint and pretended to be Nicky Winmar. Everyone at Channel 9 should remember black face paint isn’t ok.
    6. It just wasn’t that funny. Satire is always slightly risky, but you gotta be funny to get away with it.

  • 6
    JC
    October 8th, 2009 15:52

    I actually think Connick was doing a protect his backside thing as similar sorts of comedy isn’t totally a cultural no no.

    If anyone has ever watched Curb Your Enthusiasm which I think in some ways is a comedy masterpiece created by and staring Larry David- the other producer to Sienfeld, it has a skit where Larry ended up owning what was thought to be a racist dog. This was a dog the barked at only black people.

    Wanda: Did you train it to hate black people?
    Larry: No, I didn’t train it to hate black people.
    Wanda: Has it barked at any white people?
    Cheryl: No, he’s, he’s…
    Wanda: Exactly. Your dog is racist.
    Larry: Sheriff’s racist?
    Wanda: Sheriff? That’s a perfect name for a racist dog.

  • 7
    Rajat Sood
    October 8th, 2009 15:59

    I think the key thing that makes the HH skit okay is that it was done as a homage and the characters were clearly recognisable as the Jackson 5. Yothu Yindi is a bit different because they are not the worldwide pop culture icons that the J5 are/were. I haven’t seen the Newman/Winmar incident, but I doubt it was done as homage.
    JC, that’s a corker – I’m still cracking up the third time I’m reading it.

  • 8
    Dave Bath
    October 8th, 2009 20:56

    Yes, the exaggerated contrast (white v black faces) could have been part of the comedic intent, and this difference was the basis of many jokes about the Jacksons, where the butt was Michael, not his race.

    Assuming this was another “Red Faces” thing, I don’t think the group would have access to subtle makeup or skill in applying it.

    As a self identifying lefty, I think many other self-identifying lefties have over-reacted on this issue. I think you’re on the money here Andrew.

  • 9
    Franc
    October 8th, 2009 21:46

    The Jackson Jive members are an Anglo-Celtic, a Sri Lankan, an Indian, a Greek, an Irish-Italian and a Lebanese. It’s funny that just because they have black faces, everyone thinks their white people. It’s a skit that was mean’t to be funny, by a bunch a guys (I would note that they are all Doctors) that just so happens to live in Australia and proudly call themselves Australian.

  • 10
    Alexander
    October 8th, 2009 22:24

    blackface performances were no longer PC (and rightly so)

    Huh? I’m not confused or anything about your awareness; I trust you’re aware of what you’re aware of. What I’m confused about is why it’s right that they’re “no longer” “PC”. In fact, that seems to be the crux of Andrew’s post in context: That, in Australia, black-white relations aren’t significantly different from people-whose-grandparents-came-from-Italy—people-whose-grandparents-came-from-Scotland relations.

  • 11
    Alexander
    October 8th, 2009 22:42

    Personally I think the bigger problem here is that Australians aren’t allowed to have their own culture that is fundamentally distinct from American culture. Instead of getting angry at Connick Jr for failing to realise that Australia is a different place, we apologised to him. Australian culture has to pick parameters from what’s acceptable to Americans. We have to be offended by something because it relates to Americans. We’re culturally insensitive for not realising there’s an American in our midst. The American says “I felt like I’m at home here” and well he’s not—he should remember that and realise that blackface doesn’t have the same meaning in Australia and when he realised that Australians understood it differently, he should’ve accepted his apology and also backed down.

    This sort of thing happens far too often in Australia. We don’t have to be a colony any more, and every American doesn’t have to be our conscience. (My reaction would’ve been wholly different if there had’ve been a racist intent. But there wasn’t; there was a making-fun-of-a-famous-person intent, which is perfectly acceptable within Australia.)

  • 12
    melaleuca
    October 8th, 2009 23:09

    I would like to know what African-Americans living here thought of the skit. Surely that is central to deciding whether the skit crossed the line.

  • 13
    Krupa
    October 8th, 2009 23:54

    Hi Andrew
    BBC World Service Radio are discussing the Jackson Jive contrvoversy in 3 hours time. I know it’s late but if you get this in time, we’d love to have you on for a few minutes to get involved in the debate. visit our blog site for more info. Email me with a number if you think you might be able to contribute. Thanks, Krupa

  • 14
    David Smith
    October 9th, 2009 00:56

    Andrew, you are one of Australia’s best commentators, and it is just saddening to see you buy into this ludicrous line that blackface doesn’t have an offensive meaning in Australia. Just replace the word “blackface” with the word “golliwog” — the children’s toy that hasn’t been available for at least thirty years — and you get an idea of the offensiveness involved. As M mentioned, Sam Newman’s bootpolished impersonation of Nicky Winmar was considered offensive. So it was when two NSW police officers were caught on home video impersonating Aboriginal detainees with boot polish in 1992. Britain removed the Black and White Minstrel Show from the air in 1978. They were equally entitled to claim that blackface didn’t have the same meaning in Britain as in the US, but you don’t see anyone making that argument now.

  • 15
    JC
    October 9th, 2009 02:42

    I’m really trying very hard, but what exactly is offensive about the skit.

    Yes I know it that it may offend American blacks, but why exactly?

  • 16
    David Smith
    October 9th, 2009 05:53

    It’s because the crude make-up creates a grotesque caricature. There are far more tasteful and inoffensive ways for white people to impersonate black people, such as Fred Armisted’s impersonations of Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live. If you can get more subtle details like hair and voice correct, there is very little need for darkening make-up. Unfortunately plastered-on boot-polish does “make race the issue,” because it obliterates all other facial details and creates a uniform and wildly distorted racial stereotype. This skit would have been a lot more successful had they simply left the face-blackening out of it; the rest of their get-up was a funny enough parody.

  • 17
    Andrew Norton
    October 9th, 2009 06:48

    David – I think that your approach really shares too much with those of the racists – a belief that skin colour is more important than it is is. It creates stilted relations between people with different skin colours, with the white person over-anxious about not causing offence and the other-coloured person looking for the signs of the white inner-racist. Of course these anxieties and suspicions are ofen eliminated once people get to know each other, but in the US at least this initial tension seems to me to be a problem, a problem we do not want to import.

  • 18
    David Smith
    October 9th, 2009 07:58

    Andrew, it’s a lot easier to accept that skin colour isn’t important if you can be confident that other people aren’t going to to portray your skin in a grotesque or belittling way. There’s no need to be over-anxious about not causing offence if you can stick to basic standards of politeness such as not portraying black people as golliwogs. Politeness makes political correctness obsolete. I also don’t know why you think US race relations are irrelevant to this issue, something that “we don’t want to import.” These performers were impersonating black American musicians, and they were doing so in front of a white musician from Louisiana. Channel 9 imported it whether they wanted it or not. The internet in general and youtube in particular being what it is, this stuff was never going to stay local, and Channel 9 should have realised that even if the performers themselves were too naive. Massively expanded international trade and communication, with all its benefits, does have the side effect that you can inadvertently offend someone on the other side of the world. The tragic thing is that in this case, the offence could have been so easily avoided. No other western country is in a position to single out Australians as uniquely racist, most Australians aren’t racists, and I don’t believe that anyone involved with this act had racist intent. It’s just so frustrating that more care wasn’t taken to avoid putting out an offensive product.

  • 19
    Dave Bath
    October 9th, 2009 08:39

    David Smith mentions impersonations on Saturday Night Live as OK. Not exactly as under-resourced as a red faces skit!

    With similar (or even more resources) the evil Osama Bin Laden was represented pretty much as a generic arab. The Chaser boys simply put on the clothes and a long beard, common to many “orthodox” muslims from that part of the world, even those with moderate politics. Nobody complained about THAT all over the place. Perhaps the touchiness to possible racist impersonations of individuals is racist – some races yes, some races no. Perhaps “All races are equal, but some races are more equal than others” to parody Orwell.

    I’m still with Andrew on this issue.

  • 20
    caf
    October 9th, 2009 10:29

    David Smith’s nailed the issue – for mine it’s the “grotesque caricature” that marks the essential difference between a blackface skit and Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder. It’s the same reason you wouldn’t represent a Jewish person in a skit by donning a giant fake nose.

  • 21
    Andrew Norton
    October 9th, 2009 10:43

    As Dave suggests, the more obvious reading if that it was amateur rather than grotesque. The only problem was that it unintentionally alluded to an entirely different black and white minstrel tradition, with very different meanings.

  • 22
    David Smith
    October 9th, 2009 15:08

    Yes, it was amateur, but Channel 9 is hardly an amateur outfit. One of the performers today explained that they sent in an audition tape of their twenty year-old routine and Channel 9 “loved it.” This wasn’t a totally impromptu, unseen skit, it was a reprise of something everyone had seen before, and they even had the old footage queued up. The performers are all medical professionals who don’t know any better, but someone at Channel 9, overseeing a show broadcast to 2.4 million people and presumably with a lot of knowledge of the entertainment industry should have known better. As I said, I’m not suggesting this was intentionally racist, I’m with you all on that, but you don’t need to intend grotesque to be grotesque. A lot of Australians do seem to know about the minstrel tradition, or at least about the wrongness of golliwogs, and I have no idea why no one at Channel 9 would have been able to figure that out.

  • 23
    steve from brisbane
    October 9th, 2009 16:11

    Yes, it is near impossible to understand how both the doctors and the Channel 9 production people could not recognise that the ambiguity in what their appearance was trying to achieve was likely to be offensive to some viewers. What’s more, such a skit would not be so easily distributed back in the 1980’s, but they referred several times to how this show was being streamed around the world. Just asking for trouble. (I don’t think they even did the face makeup so “blackface” 20 years ago anyway – or at least that was my impression when they showed a little of the old skit.)

    And I think the point caf made was a very good one: everyone can see why Jewish caricatures are offensive. It seems a bit obtuse, to say the least, to be able to say you can’t see the same offence to blacks in blackface.

    As a sidenote, I don’t want to get all lecturing or anything, but a few weeks ago I saw by accident the start of part 3 of a BBC doco on racism. The brief section on the history lynchings in the southern States really surprised me, as I had no idea that they were, in several cases, treated as a public spectacle; not just a case of a couple of dozen men killing in secret at night. Some of the photos (as photographers took pictures of the events and later went around selling them as postcards) are horrendous. I find it hard to credit that this was the attitude in the first half of the 20th century in parts of the country.

    The doco can be viewed here.
    A collection of the postcards can be viewed here.

    You only need to watch the first 15 minutes or so of the video to see the section I am referring to.

  • 24
    john malpas
    October 12th, 2009 09:08

    So you need american permission to laugh

  • 25
    Rajat Sood
    October 12th, 2009 09:25

    Did anyone watch Insiders yesterday and see the footage of the Chaser boys imitating the Jackson 5 a couple of years ago? (Yes, with blackface). Its here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Itk42zsu-aY

  • 26
    steve from brisbane
    October 12th, 2009 09:36

    Yes I did Rajat, and I have seen the Harry Connick Jnr clip where he was imitating a black preacher. I would be surprised if you can’t see the difference between make-up which is intended to make you look like a real black American, and the thick “blackface” that is not any attempt at realism, but harkens back to a form of insulting, entertainment with a racist bent.

    (Although, to help avoid any further debate, I would acknowledge that the British based B&W Minstrel show was not, as far as I can recall, using racist based humour in their show. I don’t know that Al Jolson did either – I assume the point of such blackface was partly in imitation of black voices, but I am not sure. In any event, you don’t have to go looking far on the internet to find examples where early 20thcentury blackface acts clearly were insulting to blacks.)

    I am not saying that the doctors concerned were trying to imitate blackface, but with makeup like that, it was ambiguous and hence clearly a bad idea.

  • 27
    Shem Bennett
    October 13th, 2009 10:18

    It’s funny that the segment is called “Red Faces”.

    Blushing causing a red face is presumably not all that common amongst black people…