Oct 10, 2009

Australian Racism

There's a prevailing attitude among the everyday people of Australia that the Hey Hey Jackson Jive skit was not in fact racist, and that it's a storm in a tea cup. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is displaying emotions that range from curious amusement, disappointment, right up to outrage that this skit appeared on live TV. The host Daryl Somers, Channel 9 and the lead performer himself, Dr Anand Deva have all apologised. All three have taken up the shield of ignorance, stating it was never their intention to offend.

There can be no denial the performers were in blackface, but maybe a lot of Australians don't truly understand what blackface is? Here's a definition from Wikipedia:
Blackface ... is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to take on the appearance of certain archetypes of American racism, especially those of the "happy-go-lucky darkyplantation" or the "dandified coon ".[1] Blackface in the broader sense includes similarly stereotyped performances even when they do not involve blackface makeup. White blackface performers in the past used ... shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy. By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The Jackson Jive was a blackface performance. It was originally performed 2 decades ago, during the 1980s - a time, clearly, when racism was more present. Today, Australia lives in a globalised world with the United States one of its most dominant economic and military powers. In this world, our leaders are or should be trying to puch us further towards the centre of stage. Ours is a lucky country with potential and intelligence. But how can we be a part of the world and ignore our strongest ally's own advancements in civil rights? The nation now has a Nobel winning black President, in a land where blackface originated and where black people were lynched.

And here are five Australian men, an Australian TV network and a television show known as a national institution doing blackface. What. Were. They. Thinking? Whether they meant to offend or not, it was racist. What were the producers and the network executives thinking? Or, in what era were they thinking from? One of my biggest complaints has always been that the gatekeepers of Aussie arts and entertainment are old men with outdated, foolish attitudes to the world. No more clearly is this represented than when a TV exec or producer, someone who should be fully aware that YouTube, viral videos and the Internet means that what you put on a national screen has every possibility of being seen by the world for weeks to come, and who have chosen an American actor and singer to appear on the show, would then put blackface in front of the cameras.

It reminds me of your old uncle, in his late fifties, making all sorts of racist jokes at the Christmas dinner table. And you know he's (probably) not being malicious, he just honestly doesn't know any better. He's the product of his time. You might smile thinly or leave the room, but you find solace in the notion that maybe he says these things, but he'd never turn his back on a lynching or shoot an Aboriginal in a carpark if no-one was looking and he knew he'd get away with it. Growing up, this example was everywhere, with all the people I met in my outer suburb childhood. The attitude towards people of different skin was also hostile, negative, but thinly veiled and only ever in the privacy of homes, during family dinners or in front of the TV. But it was there, and I got the feeling it was in the majority of homes in Australia. I worried, most certainly justifiably, that it was something in me, from my own upbringing. And it made me sad.

Sad that as a nation, we stunt our own growth. I hope that this country can be a shining beacon, a nation who became strong without wars to liberate, but who used education and social responsibility to export both goodwill and knowledge along with traditional trade, to become recognised as a peaceful, happy, friendly, strong country of advancement and civility.

But let's look at the buffoons who stand in the way of that hope.

From the various articles I read online, the most infuriating parts came from the comments section, where these everyday Australians cemented the current world view of our nation (all quotes are sic):

K from Mackay 
Well, the fun police strike again Harry needs a uniform,baton and a whistle! i thought it was hilariously funny and i'm a black fella!
Luke from Melbourne 
Harry is not suited to Hey hey, hes too uptight, he needs a dose of reality and clearly has the typical USA mentality.
Scott from Adelaide
Where was the racism? The comment prior to the Jackson Jive coming on was "a tribute to the Jackson Five". So that, for all the people claiming it was racist, should have told them otherwise prior. Get over your arrogance. They respected Michael and his family, but you don't.
Certain Australian news sites also had user polls, asking variously if the sketch was racist, tasteless, funny. The results were either divided down the middle or skewed in favour of the notion that the skit was not racist or offensive. Some might say, "Well, see, the poll says no." I say, why do you even need to poll on that!? Of course it was racist, and the very fact that our nation can be divided on that in the first place is both sickening and sad.

Yes, the sketch was based on one that won Red Faces 20 years ago. That's the point! Shouldn't we be watching this from 20 years ago and thinking, "Oh god, that's embarrassing, we used to think that was OK." That sort of racism used to be acceptable, but now it's not. All that argument does is show that the arguer is stuck in some bizarre time warp where the rest of the world didn't realise they were being horrible to black slaves and started trying to repair the damage done. If thinking like an American means I find racism offensive, then someone give me a greencard! Do you really want to revel in that sort of thing? Do you really want to shrug off the evil connotations and horrid history of blackface by saying, "Nah, it was just a joke!" What sort of person does that make you?

Harry Connick Jr. was on the show and he did not like it. He stood up and demanded satisfaction. He did what thousands of his countrymen for hundreds of years did not do: he stood up for civil rights and against mocking and patronising and other instruments used to demean and keep down an entire race.

I think this whole debacle exposes that inherent racism in the Australian character. A racism born from isolation and cultivated by ignorance - a special sort of ignorance. For while we educate ourselves in science and medicine and technology, the education in social responsibility and global understanding is lackluster. Being clever in other areas lets us keep the racism hidden. Australians live in a multicultural country, but yet I say we're racists? It's a strange sort of racism, an amorphous blob that only takes shape when events like these pop up. It's racism by stealth. It's a bottom-up racism. Our leaders, our public people, they wear the badges of moral and social responsibility so that we don't have to. A politician openly encourages multiculturalism. An Australian citizen tolerates it, buts mocks it ruthlessly behind closed doors.

Look at the culprit, one Dr Anand Deva. I truly don't believe he fully understands what racism is when he says:
I am an Indian, and five of the six of us are from multicultural backgrounds and to be called a racist ... I don't think I have ever been called that ever in my life before. Anyone who knows us as a group, we are intelligent people, we are all from different racial backgrounds so I am really truly surprised.
When asked whether he would have performed the act in the US, he replied:
Absolutley not!
He just doesn't get it. He seems to think that just because he's Indian and his cohorts were from different backgrounds, then they are exempt from being racist - the idea of which is in itself racist! My point is, he doesn't seem to understand. A lot of Australians don't, and I think they need to be educated. Better, they have the internal drive to learn and educate themselves. Racism isn't something restricted to the borders of the USA. It isn't something that exists only between white Westerners and African descended black Americans. It's a worldwide plague that is very simple in its thinking, but lethal in application: to discriminate or negatively affect in any way one person or group of people based on the colour of their skin or cultural background, because it is different from your own. That is racism. That sort of thinking caused blackface to become popular, as white Americans slapped their knees during minstrel shows and remarked boorishly, "Oh ho! Look at that stupid nigger!" The Americans realised, finally, in the 1960-70s with civil rights movements and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr right up to now, with the first black President, that that sort of thinking was wrong at the most fundamental level of humanity.

And now, here in 2009, Australia shows a bunch of ignorant fools doing blackface.

I'm not saying we should surgically remove our sense of humour; that we should batten down the hatches and become a police state. I just think there are parts of our national character that need work, just as the most stable and respectable person is constantly striving to better him or herself. We are a great country, but to ever be as great as our potential, we need to be able to look at ourselves and make changes. We need to think more, to intellectualise, to drag ourselves out of the slow, sometimes backwards crawl of our social advancement. We need to look to those that have shown the way, and we need to be open to the idea that we can and have failed, but that we can learn from those mistakes and rectify our future.  Australia is a country of greatness, but it could be greater still. Isn't that something you want to be proud of? Isn't that something we can acheive?
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