In 2009 Channel Nine’s show Hey Hey It’s Saturday televised a skit that involved 4 men in blackface and 1 man in whiteface portraying a goofy version of the Jackson 5. Some didn’t understand the controversy; the Herald Sun writing,
“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?“
Here’s the problem: blackface throughout history has been used to depict people of colour in a comic and demeaning stereotype. America, in particular, has a dark history of this tradition. Going back to when Africans were enslaved by white Americans in the 19th Century, blackface was a form of entertainment in theatres. White men would blacken their face with shoe polish and then perform grotesque portrayals of (apparently hilarious) stereotypes of African people. John Strausbaugh describes it as the portrayal of
“Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers”
So you can imagine why blackface might be a little offensive, especially in the U.S. What surprises me is the Australian reaction to this skit. While they were understanding of America’s Harry Connick Jr.’s outrage, they were apathetic to the skit itself. People dismissed it as being just a bit of fun, and that it wasn’t as offensive here as it is in the U.S., where blackface is taboo.
To me, this seems highly ignorant, especially when we live in a country that also has a history of blackface in theatre, television and movies to depict poor portrayals of Indigenous Australians. It seems that the reaction was, “Yea that’s offensive in the American context, but that’s their problem because we don’t live there.” The reality is that whether in the U.S or Australia, blackface is still highly offensive because racism is not nation specific. If we tolerate these kinds of dated racial stereotypes in a simple comedy skit, when do we draw the line? Australia is already guilty of having “white-washed” casting in television, with little to no diversity in key characters. So when incidents like this happen, I often ask myself, “Are we moving forward, or backward?”
To sum this all up (if you hadn’t got the gist already), blackface is not acceptable in any form, in any country. It’s not funny, even if it is “well intended”. It is our responsibility to stand up against these offensive portrayals of stereotypes which were created during times of slavery and oppression, and say that it is not okay.