So, why are blackface theatrics racially offensive?
Thursday October 08th 2009, 8:05 pm

(cross-posted from FightDemBack!)

As FDB‘s resident American, albeit a ‘recovering American’ with some relative sobriety due my 13 years of residency in (and now citizenship of) Australia, I can understand to some degree why many Australians could not see the racial offence in the Hey Hey It’s Saturday blackface skit.

However, denying that the skit was offensive can not rely on any sort of excuse that such an offence can not occur in Australia. There’s certainly people present in Australia who reasonably can be offended by such a skit, starting with Harry Connick, Jr. I do confess to harbouring some cynical suspicions that the Hey Hey producers needed some outrage for the benefit of ratings- and Harry was a handy person to have around to be outraged.

If there’s any viable excuse for not understanding why the skit was offensive, it could be due to the fact that many Australians may be ignorant of the use of demeaning, stereotypical blackfaced characters in popular entertainment for many decades. Bear in mind that ignorance of why something is racially offensive doesn’t make it any less offensive nor excuse the offence.

The primary reason why Harry Connick Jr, a New Orleans native, took offence at the Hey Hey skit is in part because he’s very well aware of the history of the use of blackface to stereotype and demean Africans in a predominantly Anglo culture. Mind you, simple commonsense should tell you, even if you’re utterly devoid of any knowledge of the history of blackface theatre, that making-up yourself to look like a certain ethnic person and then acting like a buffoon is highly likely to be offensive to the depicted ethnicity (and I’m talking to you too, Borat). Aside from his knowledge of the history of blackface stereotypes, the commonsense explanation is in no small part why Harry took offense at the Hey Hey skit.

Blackface in theatre has been around for a long, long time- since the 1830s, in fact. The blackface tradition was carried forth into motion pictures as they became a popular entertainment form. Typically, a white actor in blackface makeup was dressed in ‘dandy’ attire, though often tattered and second-hand to indicate the low socioeconomic status of the black person being portrayed. Blackfaced characters also commonly employed mispronunciations and malapropisms to reinforce the popular racist stereotype that blacks were stupid and unable to be educated, but attempted to act ‘above their station’ or be ‘uppity,’ inclusive of the character wearing garish garb which they mistakenly consider to be stylish. As the early 20th century wore on, actual black actors appeared in film and theatre- in blackface makeup which emphasised the eyes and lips. A comprehensive history of blackface and the common stereotype characters can be found on Black-face.com.

Blackface theatre portrayed and propagated stereotypes of African-Americans so pervasively that black actors couldn’t get work in early 20th century film unless they themselves played the stereotypes…


Hattie McDaniel in
‘Gone With The Wind”


Bert Williams


Billie Thomas as
“Buckwheat” in
‘The Little Rascals’

Blackface stereotype characters carried forth even into television programs of the 1970s, inclusive of Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, What’s Happening and Diff’rent Strokes. Black actors playing roles which more resemble real people is really a rather recent innovation in popular culture and entertainment.

A lot of Australian commenters on news items regarding the Hey Hey skit who claim to not recognise the offence try to lever the excuse that the ‘Jackson Jive’ troupe were merely spoofing the Jackson Five, not blackfolk in general. However, the ‘Jackson Jive’ troupe…

much more closely resemble the blackface ‘uppity coon’ minstrel characters who sing the old ‘negro’ song ‘Camptown Races‘ in the 1942 Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon short Fresh Hare

than they do the Jackson Five:

The Hey Hey skit actors, who have since apologised, claim not to have intended offence. While the lack of intent to offend may be true, the players simply didn’t think this one through. The skit would have been just as offensive in 1989- the only difference being that 20 years ago, no-one in Australia was brave enough to stand up and say so. The 2009 version of the skit was also undeniably racially offensive. That it was even considered for repetition was fully thoughtless, on the part of the Hey Hey producers and the skit actors as well.

Harry Connick Jr should be highly commended for the bravery to stand up to the Hey Hey producers and audience and call this skit out for what it was- racist rubbish.

-weez


6 Comments so far
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Good piece. I didn’t see the HeyHey sketch go to air (0250 starts do that to you…) but given the saturation it’s had, the issue has been hard to avoid.

I just don’t get how people can’t see why it’s offensive. It’s not lost on me, and I’m really not that old (technically generation Y, just). I guess I know about it because I’m interested in old music – like, early 1900s – and there was an awful lot of it about then, with the “Coon songs” and all that. Please note, I’m using those words as means of identifying a genre and no more.

And I just don’t buy the idea that blackface is some kind of uniquely American experience. There was more than one Black and White minstrel record in my paternal grandparents collection (it was the other side of the family that brought me up on Louis, Ella and other very cool people), and in a similar vein, Charlie Drake’s “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” was number one here in the early 60s. If you haven’t heard it, it’s difficult to get through.

Well sure, that was 50 years ago – and our culture has come a very long way since then. I don’t think Australia is an inherently racist country, and I think the result and margin of the 1967 referendum bears that out.

But things like this seem odd. I don’t know, are Australians so relaxed and groovy about the fact that we’re not racist that we let this through without thinking? I don’t know. Maybe the fact that I’m aware of why it’s so offensive is because I’ve been exposed to it. Perhaps modern audiences need to see or hear some of the old Coon songs to realise what’s wrong with them, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it etc. Maybe because this sort of thing has been pretty effectively eliminated from our culture a new generation has forgotten about it, then picked it up again and can’t see the harm. Perhaps it’s willful ignorance.

I think I’m just puzzled about how on earth this went to air in the first place. Of course, it could be because the production team is full of racist knobs, but even that doesn’t seem right. I thought we were more advanced than that. They’re old enough to remember when Aborigines weren’t counted as people, they should know better.

You know what, I think I’ve got more questions than answers now I’ve sit down and put this into words. Overall, I’m still just scratching my head and thinking “but how did it get to air? Did a twilight-zone type fog descend on Channel 9 and everyone had a massive brain fade?”

And finally, because I can’t think of any other way to end this, I’ll finish by saying when I saw that picture of Bert Williams I immediately thought of Gonzo from the Muppets singing his 1905 signature tune, “Nobody”, and then of Johnny Cash’s 2000 recordng. I guess that his early breakaway from Coon songs lasted the test of time much more than a lot of the other rubbish was about at the time. That is all. I’m now going to break out my Frontline DVDs and watch “The Shadow We Cast”.

My goodness that’s rambling!

Comment by Evan 10.09.09 @ 4:42 pm

Evan, I don’t see why some people can’t see why it’s offensive, either. As I said in the post, even absent any knowledge of the history of demeaning African Americans with the negative stereotypes involved in the genre, commonsense should tell you that making-up one’s self to look like a person of a certain ethnicity and then acting the fool will be highly likely to cause offence to people of the ethnicity which is being mocked.

While actors appearing in black facial makeup goes back to the 1600s, perhaps due to limited availability at the time of actual brown-skinned actors for roles which demanded them, the use of blackface as a vehicle to propagate negative racial stereotypes or to mock racial targets is certainly American in its 1830s origins. The genre spread across the globe in the ensuing century and was emulated in other countries, in no small part due to overseas distribution of early 20th century American motion pictures.

The BBC’s ‘Black and White Minstrel Show‘ which you cite first aired in 1958 and ran until 1978. The blackface genre was repeated outside of the USA rather innocently, I suspect. It was likely thought in the UK to be a completely acceptable entertainment form in the US and hence was emulated without hesitation, despite objections to the demeaning nature of the genre from African-Americans like Frederick Douglass from as early as 1849.

Racist expressions don’t always come from those with malice aforethought. They often come from those who simply have not considered the sensibilities of those who may be offended by them. I think the latter case of sheer thoughtlessness and insensitivity characterises the skit actors and the Hey Hey production staff. However, even if borne out of ignorance and thoughtlessness, it’s still racism.

Comment by weez 10.09.09 @ 5:30 pm

Okay I understand it’s offensive and it was a stupid thing released by stupid people, yes I get that. But now apparently all of Australia is now racist, and look at what we did to the natives (people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones). I’ve always hated stereotypes and the other thing is, African Americans that I have met and talked to in Australia tell me they are treated far better there then they ever were in USA. Maybe I’m living in a different area of Australia then everyone else but when a Sri Lankan, Indian, Greek, Irish-Italian and a Lebanese man do a bloody stupid thing and suddenly I’m getting the rap for it over seas just cause I’m white and apparently racist…

It’s just annoying and stupid thats what that is. Besides the more they continue to call me that I will start to act racist, if I’m gonna be called that I might as well get the satisfaction of insulting them back.

Sorry bout the rant but when I have been defending Americans from other people my whole life and I’m now in the ‘great’ USA and all my American friends suddenly start treating me like shit for it, yeah thanks America, like France (Vogue), England (Little Britain) and you lot (Tropic Thunder) haven’t done the same thing

Sorry again I know not all Americans are like that but I am kind of frustrated at the moment, I can’t wait to get back home.

Comment by Rachel 10.18.09 @ 8:38 pm

Rachel, thanks for the note. I understand your frustration at Americans who think that Hey Hey It’s Blackface is the only thing on television in Australia. It’s about the same level of generalisation and narrow stereotyping applied by the idiots at Noise Ltd who catch an American actress cracking wise about ‘kangaroos at airports in Australia‘ and use that as an example to paint all Americans as stupid.

What’s inexcusable as regards the Hey Hey blackface skit are those trying to excuse it.

You, as an expat at present, are getting the treatment that I got when I was fresh off the boat in Australia in 1996. Some folks (though not anywhere near all) wanted to make me responsible for the actions of Americans in general and often the US government. I didn’t wear much of it- after all, if I were an average ordinary American, I’d never have left the US.

I fully understand your desire to get back home to Australia. I spent a few months in the US in the late 90s and I thought I would die. Have never left Australia since.

Comment by weez 10.18.09 @ 9:34 pm

During my recent bicycle trip through Queensland, I overheard someone use the “N word” in conversation. Scary stuff…

Comment by steck 10.23.09 @ 7:01 am

Great post.

To the first commenter: “Australia isn’t inherently racist” is a statement always made by a white person. POC in Australia see it very differently. The fact that Australian politicians can go around debating whether ‘multiculturalism is a good thing for Australia’ proves the systemic exclusion of POC in what being ‘Australian’ really means. The definition is lily white.
Being Australian is ‘assimilating’ to a white dominated/defined culture.

My point is, Australia is systemically racist.
That’s where definitions of racism differ. There’s individual racism and there’s systemic racism.

That’s why a skit like this can garner ‘but that’s Aussie humour, no one should be offended’ – as though Aussies are just anything but black.
If we POC say Australia is racist, it’s because it’s a lived experience, how can anyone claim to know our reality better than us?

Comment by Ann 03.20.11 @ 10:58 am



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