[personal profile] barrington

I live in a racist country. I do. There's no getting around it. As if the recent outcry against attacks on Indian students wasn't enough, we just had the racist bombshell of a national television programme deciding it was okay to air a talent contest in which some of the contestants performed in blackface.

Let's get this straight: blackface is, and has always been, an inherently racist tradition in which non-Africans - whether they be caucasian, Indian, or indeed Martian - don black makeup to look, not like any real African person, but like the stereotypical, racist depiction of an African, not unlike a gollywog. If you want to do this, you're doing something racist, and unless you're doing it satirically I don't see how it can possibly be defended in the twenty-first century.

I mention the century, because it took more than 100 years for American society - the front line in the battle against racism towards Africans - to figure out this was wrong. In other countries, with smaller African populations and thus a less vocal outcry, it took longer; The Black and White Minstrel Show only went off-air in the UK in 1978, despite protest letters received by the BBC as early as 1967. In Australia we were more clueless - Hey Hey It's Saturday allowed a blackface act on their show in 1989, by which time we really ought to have known better. And by 2009, well, we should totally know better. (But, as one comic summed it up last night at Political Asylum, "Did we really think we could bring back a show - with the same cast - that was sexist, homophobic and racist twenty years later for a reunion and somehow it'll all be different?")

The worst part isn't even that it got on television - the worst part is the reaction. Producers should have been sacked - after all, they were over The Chaser's Make-A-Realistic-Wish Foundation sketch, which was perhaps in bad taste - and an apology issued. But the only apology forthcoming on the night was to Harry Connick Jr., now even more of a hero to me, who scored them zero and made no bones about how offensive it was. Think about that - they apologised to the white man who was in the studio for offending him, but not for allowing a racist depiction of Africans to air on Australian national television - and thus to the world via the Internet. Channel Nine has since issued a (sort of) apology, but they've also specifically said the incident won't affect their decision on whether Hey Hey comes back regularly. (Double standards, anyone?) But the real racism is coming out in people defending the sketch.

It's embarrassing and confronting to realise you enjoyed something which, in hindsight, was inappropriate. It's like realising how sexist the original series (and, to an arguably lesser extent, the new film version) of Star Trek is, only without the benefit of being able to say "but they didn't know any better back then". (History is the only context in which cultural relativism really works.) It's tough, but the right thing to do is to say "You know, I always thought that was funny, but I can see how offensive it is, and I get it. I'm sorry."

That hasn't happened in Australia. Instead, the Internet, the papers, even federal Parliament - in the form of Julia Gillard, commenting from the US - is crawling with people trying to excuse what happened. The excuses do not stand up to much scrutiny: "It's not racist here" (Australians only know it from the same racist origins as the US and the UK, so yes, it is); "It wasn't meant like that" (they didn't mean to don a stereotypical and racist image of African-Americans in order to portray a bunch of African-Americans? What, they just fell into a vat of boot polish?); "the performers were doctors from various ethnicities, including an Indian guy, so they can't be racist" (try to imagine one of them was African - none of them were - and see if that still works for you); "It wasn't blackface, it was about the Jackson Five" (then don't do it in blackface); "it was just meant to bring back memories" (of what? Slavery?).

What's going on? Are Australians inherently racist? I have to conclude we are, as a stereotype - in this case, one borne out by evidence. At the very least we're not quick to accept criticism and admit we're wrong - especially when it comes to a "cultural institution" like Hey Hey.

Hey, New Yorkers - please don't lynch me when I visit.

Date: 2009-10-09 02:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] reynardo.livejournal.com
Alas, lowest common denominator. Much as we would like otherwise, it would be impossible to eliminate racism from all of Australian society. And while there are some people who still find that sort of thing funny, there's going to be people who produce that humour. And there will be people inside the show protesting "you really don't want to do that, do you?", when you've got a show with big egos and 20 year old memories of "it was good then so it should be good now", the protesting voices will not get heard.

I've got a friend living in Japan who is horrified at this one. I'm ashamed to be from Australia at the moment.

Date: 2009-10-09 02:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] barrington.livejournal.com
Your friend being in Japan reminded me that someone commenting on the ABC news article I linked in my post wondered why Australia is copping it for this, when (they reckon) someone on Japanese television doing Louis Armstrong got nary a mention. (The link is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4QB7cHdVfs)

Of course the main difference is that one is blackface of the traditional sort - black makeup with big red lips and a ridiculous afro wig. The Japanese one, while still possibly offensive - the acting certainly is, though I had the sound down so I don't know what the singing or playing is like - is a good-faith attempt to look like Louis Armstrong, with actual human skin-tone makeup, no oversized red lips, and no stupid wig.

Date: 2009-10-09 02:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hnpcc.livejournal.com
The thing that interested me the most was the Indian doctor (the one in whiteface) saying that he wouldn't have done it in the US, but it was fine here.

As I said, interesting.

At least one person at my work (young, Honours student) had no idea at all why it was offensive, having never heard of black and white minstrel shows, golliwog imagery and the like. She thought it was funny because it was about Michael Jackson's skin colour.

I have to say that personally I found the Sam Newman 'Nicky Windmar' 'sketch' more offensive overall. That may well be because it was intended to be so.

Strange how these things all end up on channel 9 though isn't it.

At the very least we're not quick to accept criticism and admit we're wrong - especially when it comes to a "cultural institution" like Hey Hey.


Date: 2009-10-09 03:14 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] drwally.livejournal.com
Half of us are racist, the other half just have a deep seated white fear of our culture (what little there is) being over-run by the one-two punch of fierce nationalism and centuries of culture that other immigrants bring here, that we squash into a little ball and pretend is not there.

That said, that's Whitey McWhiterson, son of convict or early German settlers. We're also chockers with Lebbos that hate Wogs, Pakis that hate Indians, Sydneysiders who hate Melbournites. The whole fucking place is racist because the whites are uncomfortable about all the non-whites, and everyone else just brings their racism with them.

One bright spot is our Asian culture is being spared of this because it's been here for so long we're comfortable with it. Plus we fuckin love Chinese food.

Date: 2009-10-09 04:22 am (UTC)
thorfinn: <user name="seedy_girl"> and <user name="thorfinn"> (Default)
From: [personal profile] thorfinn
Also Kung Fu movies. Us chinks are kewl 'cos we can totally beat you up with one chopstick, and half of us either have evil beards to stroke or are evil minions for someone with an evil beard. Or if we're not actually kewl, then yelled racist comments only happens from a distance, not within kicking range. /sigh

Don't get me wrong, China is hella racist too, possibly worse. :-)

Date: 2009-10-09 07:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] drwally.livejournal.com
I do get the impression that China is racist as fuck about all the ethnic variations that have been included in China as part of the 'empire'.

Sort of the same way we think all the cunts from NT are hairy throwbacks.

Date: 2009-10-09 08:27 am (UTC)
thorfinn: <user name="seedy_girl"> and <user name="thorfinn"> (Default)
From: [personal profile] thorfinn
Yep. If you ain't Han, you're in deep doodoo as far as China is concerned. Not that they won't let you become part of the power structure if you manage to learn Mandarin well enough and are politically savvy enough... it's just that the odds are kinda stacked against you if you don't grow up speaking Mandarin.

Date: 2009-10-09 08:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] drwally.livejournal.com
Kind of sounds like Australia. With Mandarin = English

Date: 2009-10-09 12:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] meleah.livejournal.com
And y'know - a whole bunch of ancient ethnic lineages who are in their own lands trying to live in what the amalgamated empire has become. As opposed to a gigantic wastebasket of diaspora trying to figure a way forward.

But sure, just like that.

Date: 2009-10-09 04:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thag.livejournal.com
Tangent: What's your attitude to caucasian white men playing Othello?

Date: 2009-10-09 04:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] barrington.livejournal.com
I was thinking about this as I wrote the above. It's not quite the same thing, but it is related - Shakespeare's Othello is also a tradition of a white man playing a stereotypical black character, though it's at least a character - and a pretty well-drawn one - rather than a naked stereotype.

I don't think there's any reason for white men to play the part any more; the last MTC production I saw had an indigenous guy in the part. I think Orson Welles in black face paint (not "blackface" in the traditional sense, as above) was pretty poor, not least because I thought he was awful.

On the other hand, I would have killed to see Patrick Stewart playing the part - though it should be noted that in his production, the entire rest of the cast were black.

Date: 2009-10-09 05:13 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thag.livejournal.com
I did it once. The Afro-American fellow pulled out ten days before opening, so I got hauled in. Didn't get any complaints, but I was a bit concerned about "blacking up".

The make-up was more chocolate than black, and the directors were going for more of a arabian/subcontinent look rather than an African one, which I've always thought was more accurate to the character.

Mind you, I've also played a sixty-year old Spanish woman.

Date: 2009-10-09 06:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] barrington.livejournal.com
Not much you could do about that! Actually, I can imagine you in the part pretty well. And you will have been playing the character. I wonder, though, if you'd done it without the makeup, whether anyone would have commented?

Date: 2009-10-09 06:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thag.livejournal.com
probably. Race distinction is incredibly important in Othello, which is why the Stewart version works.

The part of Othello must be one that is outside of the standard conventions of the society within which the play is contained. Othello could be white, but the rest of the cast must be black.

An interesting version would be if Othello were a lesbian woman. Wouldn't that be an Iago you could sink your teeth into!

Date: 2009-10-09 12:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] meleah.livejournal.com
Do you think the distinction is as important in Merchant of Venice, for the Shylock character? does it not work if he's not a Jew?

Date: 2009-10-11 04:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thag.livejournal.com
Largely, I would say that it doesn't. However, I would also argue that Merchant doesn't really work outside of the period that it's set in.

Shylock only really works as a character because he's based on the stereotype of Jews at the time. We can complain about the racism inherent in the play as much as we want, we still have to accept that Elizabethan attitudes held that Shylock was a pretty typical example of the wicked Jewish miser.

An interesting way to place Merchant into a different context would be to set it in 1930s Germany in the style of a Nazi propaganda piece. Shylock would be far more sinister than normal, and the whole play would be an exercise in heightening an understanding of racism in art.

I find the plays very different. Merchant is very racist and requires an understanding of the times. Othello is far more subjective with the tragically heroic outsider being largely accepted by the more noble characters, only really hated by the villainous Iago.

Overall, I'd say it comes down to how important you think a literal interpretation of the text is to the integrity of the play. That's always going to be subject to personal preference.

Date: 2009-10-11 07:53 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thag.livejournal.com
just had another thought on a similar tangent. I don't see any reason to place any emphasis on Fagin's heritage in any stage or film versions of Oliver Twist.

Date: 2009-10-10 08:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kultek.livejournal.com
I have to admit I did think, what's he got against board games for about 5 seconds.

Date: 2009-10-09 09:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jilavre.livejournal.com
Very, very well put.

Date: 2009-10-09 09:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lonemagpie.livejournal.com
I live in a racist country. I do.

So does everyone else in the world.

Date: 2009-10-13 09:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shnetti.livejournal.com
Finally saw it.

I'm with Tim and Graeme.

Date: 2009-10-14 12:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] barrington.livejournal.com
...what did Tim and Graeme say? I'm guessing it was something about it not being very funny?

For another comedian's take, see Justin Hamilton's blog (http://justinhamilton.com.au/node/55).

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