Friday, October 9, 2009

Message from a black man on blackface

Well it seems that the "Jackson Jive" blackface act on Hey Hey Its Saturday has become a massive story, not just in Australia but around the world as well. Click here for my earlier article on the subject. As for the Australian public, if you judge by comments on news outlets and radio talkback, it seems that around 80% thought there was nothing wrong with the skit, and Harry Connick Jr should just get over it.

What seems to be the common consensus amongst the average Australian is that "I don't personally find it offensive, so it's not offensive."

Of course, there is a flaw in the logic that since Connick is in Australia, he should just accept our sense of humour. (I use the term "humour" loosely, since, PC-ness aside, I couldn't really see anything actually funny in the performance). The flaw is that of course most Australians aren't going to find it offensive - it's not about them.

Has anyone actually asked a black person what they think about this?

I mean, since it's apparently a joke at the expense of black people, isn't it more relevant whether or not they find it offensive, rather than whether the average non-black Aussie finds it offensive?

Well, a black man sent me an email today, which describes beautifully what the problem is here. The guy who wrote the message is Mike Justice, a local MC I know from back in the day, who is of Australian and Afro-Caribbean descent. If you know anyone who still cannot understand why the skit was inappropriate and offensive, I suggest you cut-and-paste this and email it to them.

Good Afternoon,

It seems that the Australian public is misunderstanding why the international outrage has been caused by the 'Hey Hey' skit.

I will frame this by saying I believe it to be an honest mistake.

However there are several points we need to understand.

Firstly, the call of racism has nothing to do with white people dressing up as black people. But rather white people (or any people for that matter) dressing up in 'Black Face'.

OK, so what's the difference you ask? "Black Face" is a form of entertainment that started in the early 1900's. It was designed to ridicule and degrade black people, who at the time where considered less then human. Or as Harry Connick Jr pointed out, to portray them us Buffoons. 'Black Face' (and not white people dressing up as white) is a symbol of slavery, oppression and a time when black people had no rights. This is a major difference.

The problem has come, as the dancers were not dressed as the Jackson’s but in 'black face'. If they made any realistic attempt to dress up like the Jackson’s or were wearing Jackson masks, this would be different. However they were not. This is what has caused the international uproar.

Historically speaking, the classic 'Black Face' symbol is the Golliwog. Now these dolls were 'socially outlawed' and taken out circulation by the early 1980's. Any reference to them in the media (such as Children's books) has been stripped and is now non existent due to its offensive nature. Except of course when the ‘Hey Hey’ show aired the skit of the Jackson’s or 'Golliwogs' dancing.

This is the problem, it has nothing to do with white people dressing up as black people, but the historical context of 'Black Face'. If this was the case, I too would wonder what the out cry was all about. However the fact remains, a white person dressing up as a black person is very different to anybody (whether black or white) dressing up in ‘Black Face’. Again, this is a major difference, and if are going to have any serious debate about this topic, the Australian public must understand this.

Please consider this example of comparison, to some it may seem extreme, but understand this is what we are dealing with. History states that over 200 000 000 (two hundred million) African American, West Indian, and Brazilian people died within slavery, add to this many of our leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr have been assassinated. Thus for millions of black people around the world, the ‘Black Face’ image and the symbol it represent creates the same emotions of pain and anger that the Swastika does for Jewish people and the massacre they barely survived. It is that serious.

I hope this explanation delivers some kind of insight into the topic,

Thank you for your time and kind Regards,

Mike Justice.

Couldn't have said it any better myself, Mike. Respect.

You can also read an Aboriginal woman's perspective here.

And my take on why some racial humour is acceptable and some isn't, here.

Check out Mike's Myspace page as well, btw. It's some hot sh**.

If you like this you may like:

Sam Newman in racist "monkey" trouble

Yellowface is still alive

The bad old days - Mr Yunioshi


  1. Not that I necessarily approve of blackface, but I've got to wonder.. how come there wasn't any outrage 20 years ago in the USA over the same skit?

  2. But so-called "blacks" here in Brazil don't find "blackface" offensive. Why? There's no reason for them to find it offensive. There were never any lynchings here. There were never any laws against miscegenation. There has never been any segregation, such that the concepts of "black neighborhoods" and "white neighborhoods" are ones that people here have difficulty getting their heads around. The society does not employ the racist "one-drop rule" in its understanding of ethnicity. (The one-drop rule holds that "whiteness" is a pure, unblemished state, such that a mere one drop of "black" blood -- not red blood but "black" blood -- is enough to contaminate you and cast you irretrievably into that dreaded pit of "blackness".)

    So the comments of your "black man", attempting to universalize the American experience (cultural imperialism) and suggest that such matters have to be treated and interpreted in the same way as if we were in America, is incorrect. The well known French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant have criticized this phenomenon of cultural imperialism in their incisive paper "On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason". (See here: )

  3. @ Henricky: I guess for a couple of reasons.

    1) There was no American guest on the judging panel, therefore no American interest.

    2)Folks were less sensitive then. 20 years ago, the Aboriginal land rights movement (or knowledge of the stolen generation) had not really impacted on the public consciousness. And we had very few people in Australia of black African descent. Remember this was around the time John Howard said there were too many Asians in Australia.

  4. @ Peter: I sorta agree, sorta don't.

    In Australia we are bombarded with American culture, including a lot of African-American culture. Everyone knows that African-Americans have been through a lot of sh*t and still are exposed to racism, which they can be sensitive about.

    I don't think Australians should necessarily have the automatic understanding, as Americans do, that blackface is a reflection of an ugly racist past, and therefore not appropriate.

    But I am amazed at the inability of so many people to think for only a second, and realise, "oh hang on... I see how that could offend someone." It may not be obvious to Australians, but it ain't rocket science.

    There is a significant number of Australians POCs who were pissed off by the sketch, just as there were some who didn't see anything wrong with it.

  5. You're a reasonable person, and you can always be expected to come to a reasonable conclusion. I agree that, given the exposure to the American experience and context Australians should know better, but I've seen many examples of Australians simply being unaware of how things might look from another perspective. This is not necessarily a crime on their part, since they are not necessarily under any obligation to be keenly aware of the American perspective on everything, but it can still be surprising given the exposure to American culture and its context.

  6. i am so happy to see Mike's letter posted somewhere else on the net (we ran it over at too)

    i'm a woman of colour. my mother is mostly australian and my father is black american. i've split my life between australia and the states.....

    Pete to quote you : "Australians should know better, but I've seen many examples of Australians simply being unaware of how things might look from another perspective. This is not necessarily a crime on their part, since they are not necessarily under any obligation to be keenly aware of the American perspective on everything"

    In a country that is so culturally diverse, we all have an obligation to educate ourselves and our children on the diversity of the many people who live Mike points out, why do we understand the significance of the swastika when we choose not to understand "black face" given that african american culture has heavily influenced contempoary society here?

    wether these individuals were aware of the ramifications of their behaviour or not, what disgusts me is that people in positions of power within the media are apprently also ignorant enough to run this crap on tv. these people didn't just rock up unannounced......they were invited. their skit would of been pre approved

    i don't want my children to one day sit in front of a tv and be educated by such sheer ignorance.......because that is what breeds the next generation of race inequality, discrimination and hate

    much love and blessings for using your space to air this issue. may you have many more visitors and loud my friend x

  7. kate jean, first of all, everybody is a person of color. White is a color too. Secondly, context is everything. In an American context, such an act is offensive. In an Australian one, it's not. However, one may have expected Australians to be sufficiently conversant with America's history or racism as to have some inkling of their existing sensitivities. The most amusing thing I found about the skit was the fact that most people on the show seemed to be oblivious to how offensive it could be seen by some outsiders. I had the benefit of living in a number of different countries before coming to Australia, so I knew that such things would be quite incendiary elsewhere. But I can't expect others with less direct exposure to the outside world and other cultural contexts to be as aware.

    I remember seeing a number of years ago, I think in 2001 or 2002, a headline in the sports section saying something like "Pakis Win Second Test". Now, having lived in England before coming to Australia, I knew this was the "P-word" in England, and I was rather stunned. But I knew that those who wrote the headline had no idea of the sensitivities that exist in England with that word, so I didn't take the writer of the headline to be a racist, just unaware of English sensibilities to do with that word. No doubt somebody subsequently informed the people responsible, as nowadays I see "Paks" instead of "Pakis" in headlines.

    If you'd seen that headline, kate jean, would you have known to be "offended"? You'd have probably not thought anything of it, if indeed you'd noticed it. Would that have been your fault? Would you have ipso facto been racist for not exercising the obligation to "educate yourselves and your children of the diversity of many people who live here", including Pakistanis?

    You see, in an Australian context Australians can't necessarily be expected to know every aspect to do with the English context. And they ought not to be tarred and feathered for this. Had I not lived in England, would have I known that "Paki" is the "p-word" over there, in the same way as "nigger" is the "n-word" in the US? It's unlikely that I'd have known. Would that have then made me racist? I hope not.

  8. Peter, Australians don't need to be conversant with American history to be sensitive to the nuances of racist expression. Australia has its own staggeringly brutal history of racial oppression that included may of the things people in Brazil apparently aren't terribly troubled by.

    I also think you're stretching quite a bit, deploying Bourdieu to back your case.

  9. Rocketpilot, if Australia has its own "staggeringly brutal history of racial oppression", then was it exactly the same as in the US? I'd say it wasn't. In the US context, "blackface" refers to the minstrel shows. Australia never had minstrel shows. And the Jackson Five weren't doing a minstrel show; it's just that their makeup had an approximate resemblance to that worn during minstrel shows.

    But taking the Antipodes when speaking of racial history, what about New Zealand? Should we refuse to acknowledge any historical differences, even if they are vast as when we compare NZ's racial history when compared to the US? There was never anything resembling segregation in NZ's history, instead quite the opposite. Until the 1960s, it was official NZ policy to encourage assimilation, that is, miscegenation between Maori and Pakeha -- the precise opposite of segregation, which was what was practiced in Apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South. Maori were prominently represented in the military and government since the formation of the country, since the latter part of the 19th century. Whereas Americans in the 1990s got carried away with self-congratulations at the sight of Colin Powell rising to the highest ranks in the military, wasn't the second-in-command of New Zealand's forces during the First World War a Maori? Didn't NZ have a Maori Acting Prime Minister as early as 1911?

    And yet we would have those who would be unwilling to acknowledge the different histories, and so different circumstances and contexts, concerning race and race relations in NZ and the US. Since the 1960s many Maori in NZ have chosen to import wholesale the American racial experience, assuming an automatic identification with African-Americans and acting as if they have undergone similar if not indistinguishable historical experiences, raising alleged infractions of the Treaty of Waitangi to the same level as abuses African-Americans underwent.

    Such is the influence of American cultural imperialism, such that a country with such enviable race relations as NZ is forced to blindly and automatically adopt the American narrative regarding such matters without allowing for any modification to take into account the local context or historical reality.


  10. (continued...)

    And here we are in Australia (or here you guys are), forced to import wholesale the American narrative and historical context, without any right to modify it to take into account local realities. Thus, it is unforgivable that ordinary Australians, most of whom are inevitably parochial, are not intimately familiar with the American historical narrative and context regarding the matter of race and ethnicity, and the sensitivities and sensibilities that may go with it.

    That is the effect of American cultural imperialism; and I agree with Bourdiu and Wacquiant in their critique of it. And one good thing that will come from the decline in American hegemony we are seeing at the moment is that this cultural imperialism will subside. One of my pet hates is how this imperialism has manifested itself in Brazil, with the importation and current attempt to impose an American bifurcated understanding of race and ethnicity, so that Brazilians are divided into simply "black" Brazilians and "white" Brazilians, rather than the traditional continuum of shades and subtle understandings and nuances regarding the concept of race or ethnicity that reflects the historical reality of heavy miscegenation -- which, by the way, is not considered a dirty word as it traditionally has in the US but rather is considered a source of pride. (See here for 130+ terms used in self-classification, which is in contrast to the American bifurcated understanding that some are now trying to impose in Brazil: ). It is interesting, incidentally, that some today in the US, like Tiger Woods, are trying to rebel from the racist American notion of hypodescent, whereas countries like Brazil that have not had the types of racial problems the American have had are now trying to adopt this racist notion of hypodescent to their country because of American cultural imperialism, refusing to acknowledge the local context and historical reality.

  11. Peter, I find your rhetorical slides-of-hand and slippages into irrelevancies to be rather tiresome, so I doubt I'll respond further after this comment.

    The central issue is that in a western postcolonial state with a history of systemic oppression of its indigenous peoples can still somehow support the broadcasting on a national network of a piece of racist programming.

    One don't actually need incredible amounts of cultural capital to be concerned by this, and yet you constantly obscure this point with irrelevant tangents. I wonder what you're really up to, frankly.

  12. Rocketpilot, have you read that piece by sociologists Bourdieu and Wacquiant. What am I up to? It just shits me sometimes when some people are so willing to uncritically accept culturalism imperialism. They're like the collaborators in Nazi-ruled France. Me, I'm like ze French resistance, monsieur, fighting against my Latin comrades Bourdieu and Wacquiant against zis invasion from traitors like you!

    American hegemony is on the wane, so hopefully this nefarious, racially obsessed cultural imperialism will die with it.

  13. Sorry, i read Pete's reply to my comment and am so insulted and angry i dont have the time to read anything else thats been posted since.

    How dare you call americans or people of american/black american culture "outsiders" in this country.....

    This is Asutralia...we have an entire musical and social scene based upon black american can our country choose to rape my birthlands cultral herriatge yet still call us outsiders?

    i'm not sure if i'm more disgusted by that comment or the Hey hey skit.....

    Kate Jean

  14. "Australia never had minstrel shows"....nor did we have jews dying at the hands of Germans, concerntration camps, yet somehow we're sensitive enough to understand yo udont put that shit on tv.......funny when it comes to black folk we dont really stop and thing

  15. Kate, you didn't answer the question about "Pakis". Are you racist against Pakistanis?

    Here's the question again:

    If you'd seen that headline, kate jean, would you have known to be "offended"? You'd have probably not thought anything of it, if indeed you'd noticed it. Would that have been your fault? Would you have ipso facto been racist for not exercising the obligation to "educate yourselves and your children of the diversity of many people who live here", including Pakistanis?

  16. @ Kate (Trife Parlour Crew):

    I don't find myself in agreement with Peter on a lot of this stuff, but his defence, I think you may have read a bit more into the term "outsiders" than he intended.

    @ Peter :
    As stated before, I appreciate a lot of your contributions to the comments to my blog. But make sure to keep it nice and on topic.

  17. Promise I'll keep it nice. ;)

  18. Could not find a suitable section so I written here, how to become a moderator for your forum, that need for this?

  19. @ Anonymous - I'm not quite sure what you are asking, but my comments threads are unmoderated. I delete those comments I find unsuitable.

  20. I'm from Brazil also and people here (the vast majority, including the vast majoruty of black people) don't give damn.We (still) know how to separate things from what they meant in their historical origins.But I don't doubt that due to the globalization...coff...americanization of the world and our tendency to copy the worse things from the US (only the worse) and to care too much about foreign opinion (inferiority complex) if a news channel cover Blackface in Brazil with a negative tone people that never cared about about or felt offended about it will start to bash it.

    I wonder if I'll see the day when Maracatu Cearense that is held to PAY HOMAGE to black culture, will be bashed by public opinion having people painting themselves black.