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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:

[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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. james mcdonald

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

  5. 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

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

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