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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. 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.

  2. Bullmore's Ghost

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. bakerboy

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

  6. 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

  7. 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”.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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