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TV & Radio

Oct 8, 2009

What's all the fuss about 'blackface'?

In light of all the scandal following last night's Hey Hey it's Saturday, which featured a blackface skit, Crikey intern Melanie Mahony clarifies the history of blackface. Is it racist?

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Australia, and the world’s media, is currently up in arms about “that” skit on last night’s most watched program Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Guest Harry Connick Jnr was mortified by the performance in which a group of esteemed surgeons painted their faces black (and one white) in a tribute to the Jackson 5.

Apparently a lot of people are puzzled by Connick’s reaction. J. Hansford, for example, expressed confusion on the Herald Sun website this morning:

What’s racist about it?… We got men who dress as women. Women who dress as men… What’s wrong with white people made up as black people?… I don’t see the problem?

Well J. Hansford, here’s the problem: despite whether the skit was intentionally racist or not, ‘blackface’ humour, in which a white person paints their face black and pretends to be a black person, has a very negative connotation, both in America and around the world.

The history of “blackface” as entertainment

According to John Strausbaugh, the author of Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture, “Blackface” was/is part of a trend which displays “Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers”.

During the 19th century, a time when millions of African people were enslaved in America, a style of theatre known as “minstrel shows”, in which white actors would dress like “black people” by exaggerating the size of their lips, wearing torn clothes and using burnt cork or shoe polish to blacken their faces, began to emerge as a popular form of entertainment.

The portrayal of black people in these shows depicted them as “buffoonish, lazy, superstitious ‘coons’ who were thieves, pathological liars and lascivious devils bent on destroying white female purity”.

These were not light-hearted skits referencing black culture, “blackface” theatre depicted black people in “a degrading manner under the auspices of being accurate portrayals of black people”.

A history of “blackface” from the Spike Lee film Bamboozled:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C45g3YP7JOk&feature=player_embedded[/youtube]

Jim Crow — a “blackface” symbol of racism

Offense taken toward “blackface” skits is not just spawned by the defamatory, degrading portrayal of black people in American theatre back in the 1800’s. Rather, “blackface” theatre represents the decades of the racial oppression that cast a dark shadow over American history.

Take, for example, one of the most popular “Blackface” characters, Jim Crow. Created by actor Thomas D. Rice, Jim Crow was a “stable slave who sang a “negro ditty” titled Jump Jim Crow”. While Rice’s character was not as offensive as other “Blackface” characters of the time, the name Jim Crow is now synonymous with the Jim Crow laws, a racial caste system which saw legally imposed segregation between black and white people across many parts of America.

Hang on, isn’t this racist?

Since the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, when people began to realise that perhaps ‘blackface’ comedy was politically incorrect, any hint of blackface humour has become the subject of widespread public criticism. Here are just a collection of incidents:

  • Over the past 10 years (and most likely beyond) inappropriate Halloween costumes at college parties have left many American universities defending “ignorant” students
  • In 1993 actor Ted Danson was forced to release a joint statement with then girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg, after dressing in “blackface” for a Friars Club roast for Goldberg.
  • The 2006 film Tropic Thunder copped heavy criticism for Robert Downey Jr’s role in which he played aAustralian actor who has won five Oscars and recently undergone an operation to alter his skin pigmentation to portray a black soldier in his next film”, a character seen by many as a example of “blackface” humour.
  • On the day of President Obama’s inauguration a Japanese television program aired a skit in which the hosts make an appearance dressed as Obama and wife Michelle.

Still not sure what all the fuss is about? Maybe then, you were offended by Sam Newman’s Footy Show skit in which he painted himself black to impersonate Aboriginal football player Nicky Winmar?

So if you, like J. Hansford, didn’t know what all the fuss was about, hopefully, now you do.

Got a burning question that needs answering? Email us as boss@crikey.com.au and we’ll turn it into a Crikey Clarifier.

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43 comments

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43 thoughts on “What’s all the fuss about ‘blackface’?

  1. Cynthia Alessi

    Congratulations BPOBJIE for pointing that out. It’s obvious people wish to make themselves feel better on their stance, if they are able to call Jr. a hypocrite.

    The fact of the matter is the skit happened, learn from it, get over it and move on.

  2. bpobjie

    Good God, the most irritating thing to come out of this issue is the fools calling Connick Jr a “hypocrite”.

    Here is the main difference between the Jackson Jive skit, and the Mad TV skit: Connick Jr was PLAYING A WHITE MAN.

    Have people got it yet? “Look at him, criticising blackface, when HE once performed in blackface!” does not work, if the person you’re talking about has never performed in blackface.

  3. the duke

    I just returned from London and am SICK of this story…….

    Why is it that the so called ‘white people’ are the only ones that can be racist???

  4. Pete WN

    I don’t think its really good enough to say that just because Americans don’t have a working knowledge of Australia, that we in-turn should be willfully ignorant of them and their sensetivities.

    Their own ignorance is an issue for them. I like to think Australians are pretty educated on world events, and most people could have seen this issue coming a mile off. Besides, America is bigger and more important than us, so it would be stupid to ignore their sensitivities; thats just life in the big city.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    OZPONYGIRL: Once, when I was in a town called Baranquilla in Colombia, I was approached by an American guy wearing one of those hideous pork pie hats. He was speaking very slowly and I wondered what ailed him, until he asked the following question: “What language do you speak in Australia?”

  6. Ozponygirl

    There are some people posting saying “we” Australians “should” know about the Americans sensitivities to this issue. We should know and understand this history or else we are stupid morons if we don’t know and apparently living under a rock…

    WHY ?,,,,..I mean it Why should we ?

    They know nothing about us, are happy to know nothing about our history, it is not taught in their schools and it would be a lucky thing if any American could point out Australia on a world map, let alone their own country.

    so why in the hell should we really care what the USA thinks about us, when really they are not thinking about us.

    Look at the pot calling the kettle black !! Any black Americans that I have met here in Australia, all comment that they are treated over here in Australia far better than they are treated at home.

    Racism is alive and well still in the old U S of A outside of Hollywood.

    So personally I don’t give a Rats &*%^#! what they think about us.

  7. Catherine Bannister

    …. actually I’ve just watched the skit and I’m still cringeing.

  8. Catherine Bannister

    I think the guys in question thought they were having fun at the expense of the Jacksons, particularly Michael, rather than all African Americans. My feel is that they weren’t so much racist, as insensitive and a bit socially inept.

  9. Venise Alstergren

    Racist: No
    Tasteless: Yes
    Bearing in mind that the President of the USA is black; doubly tasteless.
    Witless: Yes
    Doubly witless because there’s not a lot going on at the moment and the world press needs something to gnaw on. And Australia is the usual scapegoat. Let us not forget that neither America or England has anything less than an atrocious track record in the trafficking of black Africans. Indeed America today still has huge amounts of voters who loathe Black Africans. The fact that it is a hatred based on fear redoubles the amount of enmity.

    Whoopie do, as with all first class bullies the Americans and the English fall like the proverbial brick wall on that irritating country, Oz. As if to show the world what a wonderful people they are. The classic case of the pot calling the kettle…..
    So far has political correctness come that I am not even allowed to use the old saying. For fear of being thought racist.

    It might be a good idea if along with the fact that Australia is a completely different mind-set to the above mentioned countries, we acknowledge our racism towards our indigenous people is manifestly disgraceful. I’m not talking about an event like Crunalla (or however it’s spelt) because red-neck hoons, yobbos a f/wits
    appear in all societies.

    To me it is astonishing to see so many Australians groveling to America, tail between our legs, because they don’t like it. Personally I would rather see our country really come to grips with our racism towards our own black Australians.

  10. Evan Beaver

    On the topic of Connick Jr’s past BlackFace skit; I’ve never liked the notion (it seems to happen in politics a lot) that if someone has done something in the past any change from that in the future is hypocrisy. Perhaps in HCjr’s case he experienced the same furore (16 years ago!) we’re seeing this time, and learnt from his mistake. This whole idea does not allow any learning or change of heart in a person, despite experience showing us that it occurs refularly.

  11. laura ingalls

    NADIA DAVID said:
    “This is a dangerous development in racial discourse in Australia and internationally. Simply labelling someone as racist if they don’t agree with a particular view on a racial issue can make it incredibly difficult to even have discourse at all on racial issues”

    Agreed!

  12. Bullmore's Ghost

    Bakerboy: the guys on Hey, Hey It’s Yesterday were not sending up a group of black entertainers. They were reincarnating the offensive long dead practice of *white men* blackening up to portray black men.

    Again, in the Connick case, he was among black men and a leading part part of *their* particular act.

    If you’re a guest of a black group on a show that is aired, you are hardly offending your guests.

  13. Perry Gretton

    I remember the Black & White Minstrel Show and I thought then that it was insensitive, e.g. if you needed black singers, why not get real ones and pay them the going rate instead of blacking up white folk?

    I saw the HHIS clip on Youtube and thought the skit was crass and tasteless and in no way amusing, but not racist and certainly not as demeaning as the Mahatma Coat depiction on the Cricket Show years ago. Now that curled my toes.

  14. Nick of McEwen

    i reckon this is a ripper piece – very comprehensive and all the more impressive considering it was done on one day’s research. Well done Melanie. To anyone who still doesn’t get it – it’s the history, stupid.

  15. bakerboy

    Bullmore – people in glass houses………! In his skit, Connick was sending up a black preacher, the guys on HHIS were sending up a group of black entertainers.

  16. Malcolm Street

    I think Crikey’s editorial hit the nail on the head. Blackface here obviously doesn’t have the justifiably sinister connotations it has the in the US, which I wasn’t aware of until this article. I remember the Black and White Minstrel show as a kid and from what I recall there was nothing racist about it – it was an innocent music show using what we’d now regard as a rather insensitive presentation.

    The sketch (which I didn’t see live) I understand was an update of one the same group did twenty years ago on the show, with the difference that then “Michael Jackson” was also in blackface – that, I assume, was the joke. I don’t think there was any racist intent on the part of the participants, or of HHIS. Quite simply, no-one realised how attitudes had changed and in particular (and the point of the Crikey editorial) that via the Internet this could be seen around the world where it might be seen in a different light and could become a cause celebre.

    Whatever, it’s being seen internationally as yet more evidence that we’re a nation of insular, racist hicks.

    Moral? I dunno… How do you guarantee that a sketch you put to air (particularly when comedy can frequently be edgy) that is acceptable in your own society will not cause a furor somewhere else in the world? Should you even try to do this?

  17. Bullmore's Ghost

    As for Connick’s reaction, I suggest that any thinking Australian guest on an American TV show that lampooned Australian Aboriginal culture today in a way that was as strongly offensive as “blackface” is, would feel similarly uncomfortable if not outraged.

    As for the clip of Connick impersonating a black preacher, he was doing so in the company of blacks, thaus was evidently an accepted part of the act in that situation. Hardly the same as a crude attempt to portray “blackface”.

  18. bakerboy

    Connick’s feigned reaction on HHIS was purely aimed at his US audiences. This bloke is from good ole Louisiana where racism is still rampant. Connick has done good works for blacks in his home town, so he wants to keep his rep in goood shape. Alex

  19. bakerboy

    I just saw on the 6pm news the clip of Connick impersonating a black, Southern preacher. Hypocrite, go home buddy. Alex

  20. Venise Alstergren

    Kerry, still up there with the angels? What a stunning crack about Hey, Hey, it’s Yesterday living up to its name. Olé

  21. Jon Murray

    I’m a bit surprised at the surpise that HHIS should do something offensive. The show was always loaded down with homophobia, misogyny and racism – the core values of its audience.

  22. Bullmore's Ghost

    Just another case of Hey, Hey, It’s Yesterday living up to its name.

  23. Greg Angelo

    Having watched the performance on the Channel 7 news, I cannot see what all of the fuss is about. The show is a caricature and should be seen as such. The act was a bunch of young blokes having a bit of fun, and sending up Michael Jackson which in no way is racist, if you assume that being racist means that you actively discriminate against somebody different from your racialall social background.

    Recognising differences in behaviour and attitudes between different ethnic backgrounds is not in itself racist unless you assume that any differentiation whatsoever is to be proscribed. Zionists have made an art form of criticising anybody who disagrees with them as being racist, and the racist epithet is overworked. The critics should have “Bex and a good lie down”.

    It should be noted despite the Channel 7 beat up 80% of the respondents to their online survey found no offence.

  24. Tim Renowden

    The argument that “this is only culturally relevant in America” and “the significance of blackface comedy isn’t the same in Australia” is a complete cop-out. We’ve all been taught the history of slavery, we’ve all had decades of American TV and movies, we’ve all seen Martin Luther-King and we all should be well and truly aware of how offensive this would be to black Americans (or British, or Australians for that matter).

    If you’re not aware of why it’s offensive, you haven’t been paying attention.

    Of course now the rest of the world (which HAS been paying attention) thinks we’re all a bunch of unreconstructed racists. Claiming ignorance isn’t an excuse, either, it just makes us look like a bunch of ignorant unreconstructed racists.

  25. jeebus

    Black face carries massive cultural baggage in America, and if an American were to see that skit, I could understand how they might misinterpret the intention behind it. However, does anybody in Australia who was watching last night honestly believe there was malicious or racist intention behind that skit?

    If your answer is no, then let’s all agree it was a bit in poor taste and move on with our lives.

    If you are outraged and scandalised by the very concept of black face, then may I direct your attention to the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet, which was notably absent from the article above. You’ve got bigger fish to fry!

  26. Evan Beaver

    No, no no. You’re reading too far into my comments. All I’m saying is that the reasons for the furore and Harry’s reaction are all there. Some of them are at the top of this page. You can respond to these reasons in any way you see fit. I’m not saying that the reaction across the intertubes was justified or useful, just that this is the reason for it. That’s all. Anyone who doesn’t know that these reasons exist is being intentionally ignorant.

    My comment about intentional ignorance wasn’t that you SHOULD find offence with the skit, just that others have found offence for the above reasons. You can now choose to take those reasons to heart, or ignore them totally. Either is a possibility.

    I do agree that offence in general is a slippery topic to deal with. If we sought that no one did anything that others could be offended by there’d be very little left to do.

  27. Ade

    “Anyone who doesn’t see that there is potential for fuss here is being intentionally ignorant.”

    So now we avoid everything that might cause a fuss? Will Crikey be switching to reporting on cats stuck up trees now?

    At worst it was culturally insensitive to Mr Jr. They could have left him off the judging panel and it would never have made the news.

  28. Venise Alstergren

    As I have decided I can exist without television I didn’t see the program. But how anyone could view the YouTube history of blackface (above) without getting a broken heart is beyond me.

    Perhaps the people who fail to ‘get it’ should somehow be able to look for the servility of decades which permeates the film clip. Is it really amusing to see anyone rolling around on the ground to make people laugh at an apparent stereotype? Is it really funny to laugh at people who were so used to being told to do things, they’d snap to attention?

  29. Heathdon McGregor

    Tom

    I remember it when we used to holiday at Barwon Heads

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_and_White_Minstrel_Show

  30. james mcdonald

    And Connick will get over it when record buyers read about his reaction

  31. Tom McLoughlin

    Here’s a bit of history – down in Warrnambool Victoria (HHIS is Victorian right?) I can vaguely remember in the late 60ies maybe early 70ies that there was in fact on the only non abc commercial channel – you guessed it, a black and white minstrels show once a week.

    Does anyone else remember this stuff? The tunes were awful. The context above totally obscure. And 40 km away was the old mission at Framlingham but we never talked about our own Blacks back then either.

    I tend to agree the USA history and sensitivities is a much to adopt wholus bolus here. Perhaps we should collectively say like the Chaser, that was a stinker, sorry won’t happen again, and extra sorry for being unfunny too.

  32. Nadia David

    Evan, it’s the fact that people are told and get it and still don’t agree with you that you take umbrage with. I get the historical racism this skit unearths. But I don’t get why it has imploded in this way. Blackface is not the way Australians have historically used racism as entertainment, so why is it that this skit provoked such outrage? Is it because Harry Connick Jr got upset, he’s a cool guy, so we should be as upset?

    Why aren’t we as upset about a football stand named ‘Nigger’, Sam Newman’s blackface go at an actual black person, the Army guys who dressed up as KKK? This level of outrage is a little hollow when there doesn’t appear to have been actual racist intent. Hell, the gag of 4 black guys and a white guy to depict the Jackson 5 ain’t new.

    Let’s leave the American outrage to the American and focus on getting outraged about stuff that really is offensive, racist and disrespectful.

  33. james mcdonald

    I agree with Nadia. For those of us who didn’t see the show … Is the issue that it tapped into a tradition with a racist history in another country? Or did the skit actually ridicule black people? If the former, then the history is lost on most of us. If the latter, then the ridiculing is the issue, not the stage trick of painting the face black, per se.

  34. Crikey Intern

    Whoops….thanks ponyboy, error amended.

  35. Evan Beaver

    Hi Nadia, that wasn’t quite what I meant. Anyone who doesn’t see that there is potential for fuss here is being intentionally ignorant. Many explanations have been put forward that make a lot of sense. I consider this different to knowing what the fuss is about and not caring. It’s the people who have been told and still don’t get it I take umbrage with.

  36. Ponyboy Curtis

    It’s Spike Lee not Spike Jonze you indie rock nerd.

  37. james mcdonald

    The Chaser? Why didn’t anyone make a fuss about them trying to create a security scare by dressing in what they called an “Osama bin Laden suit”, i.e. a cheap imitation of traditional Saudi dress?

  38. Nadia David

    He wasn’t dead then Irfan.

    I agree with Evan that this article was really useful and thanks to Crikey for coming up with it.

    But I do take umbridge that people who don’t find the skit offensive, even if they are fully cognisant of the history of ‘blackface’ humour, are labelled stupid, racist or ignorant. This is a dangerous development in racial discourse in Australia and internationally. Simply labelling someone as racist if they don’t agree with a particular view on a racial issue can make it incredibly difficult to even have discourse at all on racial issues, and generally gets people making aggressive comments they wouldn’t feel the need to make if they weren’t being called something which they can’t really defend against. What do you say other than “I’m not racist”?

    I personally think there has been an over-reaction to the skit. Blackface is not something that has such an awful history in Australia, and while I understand where Harry Connick Jr is coming from, I think this is an example where more has been read into a pretty thoughtless skit than was ever meant to be. Call me racist (I know Chris Graham will if he reads this), since that’s the easy way out. If you don’t engage people on the issue, on their opinion, on the facts, then there is no engagement, just name-calling, and no one gets anywhere with that.

  39. John Bennetts

    Thanks, Melanie. I now better understand the context. The show’s American visitor was absolutely correct in what he did and said.

  40. Irfan Yusuf

    Woops, I meant “make a fuss”.

  41. Irfan Yusuf

    Why didn’t people make a face over the Chaser’s post-election rendition of the Jackson-5?

  42. Evan Beaver

    I thought this wa sa good and useful article. Anyone who still doesn’t know what the fuss is about is either intentionally inflammatory or too stupid to understand cultural subtlety.

  43. Barry Cross

    I still don’t know what all the fuss is about.

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