Thursday, October 8, 2009

Shame Faced

I am writing from Australia, probably the last place in the western world that still presents minstrel shows. In the past day, millions around the world watched a clip from our national TV variety show "Hey Hey, It's Saturday" because they presented a group who painted their faces black and parodied the Jackson Five. (Well, except for the guy doing Michael. He was painted white. And that was the only real humor in the skit.)

Harry Connick jr was a judge on the show, and he objected to white guys donning blackface for which the show's host apologized to anyone it had offended. The blogosphere has been crackling with thousands of people commenting about the story. Basically the responses are falling into a couple of categories: 1. (mostly Americans) It was racist, and good for Harry Connick for taking a stand on it; or 2. (mostly Aussies) Those damned Americans are so politically correct that they now take offense at even the most innocuous humor.

One of the defenses by several Aussies in Group No 2 is that no one in America seemed to take offense at the movie Tropic Thunder where Robert Downey played an actor who had his skin pigment darkened because he was playing a black man in a movie. That one is not quite as convincing as they might hope, though, because the movie makes lots of jokes at the expense of the character for doing this. Oh, and also - the character is an Australian.

Many also pointed out that 12 years ago Harry Connick jr did a skit where he played a preacher with a southern accent next to a black guy playing a preacher. They did not quite grasp that Harry Connick is in fact a southerner, and that he did not smear black makeup all over his face to do the skit. But then, the Internet does bring out the dumbest in a lot - an awful lot - of people.

Blackface was a type of entertainment invented almost 200 years ago in - where else - the US. In fact, the Wikipedia entry calls the minstrel show featuring whites in blackface "the first distinctly American theatrical form." But that postcard at the top of this post is more than 100 years old, and minstrel shows have been dead for nearly as long. I guess it's ironic that blackface humor is now outrageously offensive in the US, yet it lives on here, where it can still go to air nationwide.

But history doesn't answer the fundamental question: was this skit in Australia racist?

Well, yes it was. But no more so than when the Wayans put on white face to make fun of young white women in their 2004 movie White Chicks. The fact is that we could fill volumes naming actors and comedians who have played people of other races, other genders, other body shapes, other sexual preferences, etc.

I am not sure why some are OK and some are not. But that's the case. I saw White Chicks (well, the first half) and the only offense I took was that it wasn't funny enough to watch it all. It didn't even occur to me that it could be construed as racist, any more than I felt I was being ridiculed by Mike Meyers' Fat Bastard or Tom Cruise in a bald wig in - oh, that's right - Tropic Thunder once again.

I propose that the squazillion people with an opinion on whether this was racist agree to a simple test. If the people are willing to put blackface on and walk through an inner city neighorhood in the US, then we will assume they are not racist and the neighborhood will all laugh at the humor of it all. But of course, if they do agree to do that, we will all agree that they are seriously stupid.

Which I suspect we should have known from their skit.

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