Oct. 9th, 2009

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.

February 2012

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