Australian blackface and Harry Connick Jr.

Are Australians racist?

If you haven’t heard about the blackface controversy Harry Connick Jr. found himself in last night, then start by seeing this.  It is a performance on an Australian show on which Connick served as one of three judges.  The show, Hey, Hey It’s Saturday was a staple of Australian TV for 27 tears, running from 1972 to 1999.  Last night’s episode was a reunion/anniversary kind of thing, when these men performed:

First off, I think Harry Connick Jr. deserves props for his stance. He found himself in an awkward position–both for the fact of being a foreigner on a beloved Australian show as well as being on a comedy/variety show to begin with. That he spoke out immediately, and managed to get the show to allow him the space to further voice his objections, is admirable. I want to be clear here: he did what was right. When it comes to his own personal context–being from New Orleans; as the son of an attorney who worked in a racially-tense city; as a musician who works with African Americans playing African American and Southern styles of music–to do anything but, would have been wrong. While I don’t believe in rewards for people doing what they should do, when the context of doing different is so powerfully before them, to resist it is admirable, indeed.

The Australian press has been having a field day with this news, mostly revolving around the above question. This article sums up a lot of it. If you read this blog often, you know my stance on this kind of stuff. The “Are we racist?” line is a useless one since, inherently, the answer for everybody living in the modern world is “Yes.” It’s much more useful to think about how ideas about race continue to shape our relations and beliefs, and how they often do so to our collective detriment.

An “Are we racist?” line almost precludes us from doing the kinds of individual and collective reflections necessary to make sense of the insidious nature of racialized beliefs.  We think about “intent” more than we should instead of focusing on “context” and “result.”

For example, Australian “Snap polls on the internet” seem to suggest most folks think the skit “wasn’t racist, but a harmless, indeed funny, tribute to the Jackson Five.” Leaving aside the unscientific nature of the polls, other news stories seem to be portraying the same belief as being held by mainstream Australia. There problem is, to think of it as a “tribute” means you have to negate the very deliberate and focused way they are fulfilling the “script” of “blackface” to the most specific kinds of detail: non-blacks painting their faces oil black; speaking in racialized patois (while even using distinct, US-based African American expressions); performing in an extreme, Sambo-esque way, and so on. Their older performance from 1989 was even worse! This time around, the include the “Michael” figure as a “white face,” thereby making it a racial critique rather than tribute.

One of the performers had this to say after:

“I’m Sri Lankan-Australian, there’s an Indian-Australian, a Greek-Australian, an Irish-Italian-Australian and a Lebanese-Australian. We’re all Australian.

“I think the fact that all six of us have gone on to very successful careers as doctors demonstrates the fact that Australians care more about ability than race.”

A perfect example of the “intent” argument that falls from this line of reasoning. What it ignores, however, is the broader context of ignorance and uncritical sympathy that lies at a lot of actions like this.

Harry Connick Jr. faced some fire for doing what he did, an even more dynamic demonstration that something wrong is at work here. He issued the following statement on his blog:

I have watched the media storm that has erupted over my reaction to the Hey Hey blackface skit. Where I come from, blackface is a very specific and very derogatory thing.  Perhaps this is different in other parts of the world, but in the American culture, the blackface image is steeped in a negative history and considered offensive.  I urge everyone in the media to take a look at the history of blackface to fully understand why it is considered offensive.  I also urge you to review the Hey Hey tape and you will see that I did not ascribe any motives to anyone, nor did I call anyone a racist.  The blackface skit was a surprise to me and I was simply shocked to see this on TV.  I do not believe that the performers intended any harm.

At first, it kind of felt to me like he was backing away. But then, it seems appropriate. He really helped refocus the argument again away from “intent” and more toward the broader context of seeing this as not problematic. More props to him.

2 thoughts on “Australian blackface and Harry Connick Jr.

  1. props to Harry. I don’t know if I would have handled it the same way, but he was firm and a gracious guest. Amazing that nobody in the audience flinched.

  2. Thanks for sharing the news and views about the show and Connick’s reaction, Tomas. I will post your blog on Twitter and also ask a very thoughtful Australian friend her views on the incident.

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