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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?

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:


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 and we’ll turn it into a Crikey Clarifier.

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

  1. Barry Cross

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

  2. 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.

  3. Irfan Yusuf

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

  4. Irfan Yusuf

    Woops, I meant “make a fuss”.

  5. John Bennetts

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. Ponyboy Curtis

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

  9. 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.

  10. Crikey Intern

    Whoops….thanks ponyboy, error amended.

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