Saturday, October 10, 2009

Black-faced racism

When a group of Australian professional men – none of whom black – get together and paint up their faces black, wear large, black curly-haired wigs, dress in the style of '70s disco and R&B, and perform – very badly – a routine satirising 1970s African American family musical group the Jackson Five, you may think that they demonstrated more than just bad taste or a lack of good sense. You may, in fact, feel quite distressed at their racist portrayal of black people – not just African American people but all people of colour who have borne the brunt of white racism. This is quite likely if you are black, or a person of colour, yourself.

In such situations, you may express quiet disgust, you may walk out of the room during the performance, or you may, if you feel brave enough, have a word with one or two of the performers afterward and tell them why you think what they did was racist and wrong, and that they should rethink their attitudes towards African Americans, and black people generally. And it will likely be the subject of conversation amongst those who watched the performance for some time. Quite likely it will end there, or with a half-hearted apology from the performers and the excuse that they were just having a 'bit of fun'.

But when such an act is included in a variety program 'reunion' show broadcast on national television, with potentially hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of viewers, as it was last Wednesday night, you would surely wonder what this said about a country that condoned, celebrated, defended, and advocated such racist depictions and ridicule of black people.

Personally, I'm not really surprised that there are people who would perform such a show, and only a little surprised that Channel Nine broadcast it. I am certainly not surprised that the national conversation in Australia has been divided between those who are aghast and disgusted at the national broadcast of such racist ridicule, on the one side, and those who think it is all just a bit of humour and totally blown out of proportion by those too 'PC' to have a sense of humour and who should just 'get over it', on the other.

I am not surprised, but I am still angry.

I'm not surprised because I do believe that Australia has more than an undercurrent of racism that it not only denies, but actively cultivates. It is the vein of racism that runs under the inaction that allows child malnutrition and food insecurity to continue in Aboriginal communities while the country's richest city, Sydney, throws away AUD$1 billion worth of food a year. A vein that stretched across the string of desert, and now island, concentration camps where asylum seekers were indefinitely detained without trial.

It is the same vein of racism that Pauline Hanson open-cut into a bleeding sore, and that John Howard carefully capped and tapped, to draw on in an continuing drip, drip, drip that helped keep him in power on a wave of fear and hatred of invading asylum seekers, PC-police multiculturalists and dole-bludging blacks.

It is the same vein of racism that sees Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed by child protection authorities from their parents at over 8 times the rate of non-Indigenous children – over 10 years after the Bringing Them Home Report and over a year after the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

It is the same vein of racism that saw the Cronulla riots by white Australians expressing extreme racist sentiments and racist violence against Australians of Arab descent, and today sees South Asian international students and migrants, often working in low-paying jobs, fair game for racist attacks, muggings, and robbery.

No, I’m not surprised. But I am angry.

I am angry because this skit, this poor excuse for racist ridicule, was not an unfortunate slip-up of bad judgement by television executives. Channel Nine producers did not just 'let it happen', but in my opinion likely sought out the original performers of the skit broadcast 20 years ago on Hey Hey it's Saturday – when the men were medical students. More than a couple of people must have thought it a good idea to exhume the same group for the come-back show, with a triumphant ‘see where we are now’ punch line: all now medical specialists, with a urologist, anesthetist, and psychiatrist amongst them.

Until Channel Nine got egg on their faces and a clearly angry Harry Connick Jr criticised them for it on air. (The footage of both the skit and Connick’s criticism of it is online.) When Connick said on air, “we have spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart,” he wasn’t kidding. The media and opinion storm in the US has been huge, and overwhelmingly critical of the TV show and of Australia for perpetuating such racism.

Unfortunately for Australia, the criticism seems to have gotten white Australia’s collective back up, and instead of inspiring widespread reflection on the extent of racism in Australia, it seems to be provoking defensiveness and closed ears – as well as the current debate over whether the skit was really racist or just harmless Aussie humour. The opportunity for collective soul searching and effective anti-racism campaigning seems likely to be swamped by this debate.

If such an incident doesn’t prompt privileged white Australia to reflect on the extent of racism in this country, I’m not sure what will. I guess I’m inclined to agree with one of the American reactions reported in The Age:
"As a college-educated, African-American professional who confronts racism daily from cradle to grave, for no other reason than the colour of my skin; it is clear to me now more than ever, that racism against black people will never disappear but continue to be tolerated under various guises."

[Image: 'Poster for minstrel show, 1899', published on flickr by bobster855; used under Creative Commons license]

Originally written for Meanjin Journal's blog, Spike.

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At October 10, 2009 9:34 pm, Anonymous parlance said...

Mark, I didn't see it or hear about it till the next day, when I was in a group with a few older women, changing after an exercise class. One mentioned it, and someone said something about a fuss, and I said , 'What's the fuss about?'

'Some guys did a minstrel act in blackface on Hey Hey.'

I simply couldn't believe it. I asked about four times, 'You're telling me they blacked their faces and appeared on tv?'

It was interesting how the women around me (acquaintances, not close friends, but all kind, compassionate people, I would have thought) were taken aback by my absolute amazement.

I think they saw it in a different light when they realised I thought it was absolutely unacceptable.

I think that's how we make a difference. By just showing that some attitudes and actions are simply not funny, not okay, not acceptable, and that we have to look behind things to see what messages they are sending.

There was no anger on my part, or any anger between the other women and me, I must explain, just a discussion of why I thought it was not okay.

Sorry for raving on here, but I still feel upset by the broadcasting of this act.


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