Friday, October 16, 2009

Hey Hey It’s Black Faces, Again.

It has been nine days since the infamous Jackson Jive skit was broadcast on Channel 9’s “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” reunion show. Somehow it seems a lot longer than that, but even now more than a week after the event people are still calling talkback radio shows, including mine, to express their view that Harry Connick Junior should get over himself or go back to where he came from. It is remarkable just how strong the reaction has been to whole thing. Not to the skit itself, but to the opinion expressed by Harry Connick Junior.

It seems that most Australians take the view that the skit was not motivated by racism, and it was not intended to lampoon black people for being black. In fact, as it was performed by five individuals with a range of ethnic backgrounds and skin colours, it is ludicrous to suppose that it was. Rather, it was intended to lampoon the Jackson Five, who as public figures are just as legitimate targets for lampooning as anyone else. It’s just that they happen to be black, and part of the joke was that the late Michael Jackson had become increasingly pale in his later years. Australians “get” that the joke is not about racism, it is about celebrity. What Australians by and large don’t get is that Americans have a vastly different cultural perspective, which is easily overlooked because on the surface they seem to be so similar to us.

On that basis, Harry Connick Junior was taking the only position he could. He knew that, although he might be in Australia where the context is different, anything that he said or did would find its way back home to the United States. He knew that he couldn’t simply do as the Romans do when in Rome, and politely ignore what had occurred. He knew that if he did nothing, it would come back to haunt him. He knew that he had to stand up for what he believes, whether it was well received by his hosts or not. From his cultural perspective anything else would have been untenable. In the end, I believe he presented himself in a very diplomatic fashion, acknowledging the fact that there was no malice intended, but asserting the view that an international audience would see matters differently.

In the wake of those events there has been much renewed debate about political correctness, racism, and prejudice. Why, people ask, is it OK for black entertainers to lampoon white people, but not the other way around? Why is it offensive to impersonate the Jackson Five in blackface makeup, but Robert Downey Junior can win awards and accolades for portraying a white Australian actor wearing black face paint to appear as a Black American character in a ficticious movie in the Hollywood comedy “Tropic Thunder”? And why are Golliwogs once again being taken from the shelves in toy stores?

It is true that golliwogs have a history of depicting black people as vagabonds, ruffians, and scallywags. It is true that for a time they were out of favour for that reason. However, in recent times it seems they have been making something of a comeback, without the negative connotations. They are now seen as simply being rag dolls which happen to be black. Or at least they were until the Jackson Jive incident. Now they have been once gain declared by the PC brigade as offensive, and removed from the display at a toy store in Melbourne. But children do not read any such connotations into their toys, and make no judgement based on their skin colour. All they know is that they like the toy or they don’t. When you think about it, isn’t it a good idea for kids to have toys which represent ethnic variety, rather than just having white dolls for white kids and black dolls for black kids?

In the end, regardless of the world’s history of slavery and oppression, of persecution and denigration, we have to learn to distinguish between laughing about racial differences and laughing at them.

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