Getting Started: things to read and things to know about critical education

Oct 9, 2009

Blackface, MJ and TV's responses

Just a mid-post point of interest for your critical gaze. You may have seen the Red Faces skit on Channel 9's Hey Hey its Saturday program (please don’t ask me why I was watching this) that parodied Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 with a blackface routine Wednesday night. Oh dear. As one of the judges for the segment Harry Conick Jr, to his considerable credit, was particularly critical of the skit and identified the racial issues at stake.

Perhaps the only more disconcerting aspect to this is the tone of the comments displayed on Channel 7’s blog available here:
(Channel 7, with ratings prospect glee, saw fit to make a bit of a deal about this issue in Thursday morning’s issue of the program- but unfortunately, it became more a discourse about ‘has political correctness gone too far’ than a genuine debate about race, apart from Nelson Aspen’s comments that framed a reasonable argument about respect and history). Perhaps you might like to comment to 7 and 9 that we aren’t all red-necks in this country and can understand that parodies of blackface carry with them significant historical and cultural baggage associated with slavery, violence and oppression.


  1. Didn't watch it, but two things struck me from the online news reports
    about the skit and reaction to it.

    According to news reports, Harry Connick Jr pressured daryl somers to
    make a public apology toward the end of the show. According to reports,
    Somers said "I think we may have offended you with that act and I deeply
    apologise on behalf of all of us - because I know that to your
    countrymen, that's an insult to have a black-face routine like that on
    the show, so I do apologise to you,"

    Isn't it remarkable that Somers is apologising to Connick, rather than
    to African-Americans and people of colour in general. And the tone of
    the 'apology' is that well here in Australia we don't find it offensive
    and don't understand why you do, but obviously you lot in America are
    more sensitive so we are really sorry that we may have offended you,
    please come back onto our show cause you are a celebrity drawcard and we
    want you back for the prestige and celebrity you bring to this show.

    Also, according to media reports one of the Doctors who performed the
    skit, a plastic surgeon named Anand Deva, stated on radio the following:

    "I am an Indian, and five of the six of us are from multicultural
    backgrounds and to be called a racist ... I don't think I have ever been
    called that ever in my life before," he told Fairfax radio network.

    "Anyone who knows us as a group, we are intelligent people, we are all
    from different racial backgrounds so I am really truly surprised."

    Asked if he would have done the same skit in America, Dr Deva replied,
    "Absolutely not."

    So if he would never have done the skit in America, how can he stand up
    and say it wasn't racist? Just because he has darker skin doesn't mean
    he can't be racist. Oh and the implication that people of lesser
    intelligence are the only ones capable of racism is interesting too.

    I recall back in late 80s after Michael Jackson was dominating the music
    scene, that MJ fan gatherings often had media reports on these fan
    conventions. Fans would be dressed in MJ clothing, with the silver glove
    on one hand and military style jacket etc. I don't ever recall any fan
    painting their face with tan or black shoe polish. They were paying
    homage to their idol by donning his clothing style and copying his dance
    moves, but I never once recall them colouring their faces in a 'black
    and white minstrel' parody. They obviously didn't see the need, or
    respected him and his racial background maybe?

    Anyway, my two cents worth.


    Tim Fish

  2. Hi Tim,

    Somers’ response was entirely remarkable- I just don’t think he got it. As an old school ‘entertainer’ in the show biz genre, he knew that a hell of a lot of publicity was riding on this, but I’m not sure he actually understood why.

    I had to laugh last night when I noted on 7’s Today Tonight program that a YouTube clip of Connick parodying a Southern preacher has surfaced and is ‘proof’ that he is a hypocrite. Oh please. This yet more evidence that the tele networks similar to Somers just don’t get what is wrong here. At no point did Conick resort to blackface to make the point. Race scares us, and we get all confused when we are confronted by it to the point that we lose site of boundaries and don’t stop to think about what is actually at stake.

    As for those medical doctors who are self-proclaimed ‘intelligent people’, well.....


  3. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I drove to work this morning. It is absolutely flabbergasting that this could happen in 2009. I think Harry Conick Jr handled the situation very well and certainly questioned the Australian mentality of “can’t you take a joke?” I quickly looked at the comments on the 7 blog today and was appalled to see such inflammatory and ill-educated postings.

    All the best,
    Margaret Baguley

  4. I think the ABC's Q&A program has possibly had the most intelligent response to the hysteria that has resulted. Check out the program if you didn't watch it at:
    Kind regards,
    Heather Sharp

  5. There are a couple of aspects of this event that seem to me to be worth at least a passing comment. The first is that the blog-based and other comments relegating Connick’s response to the “PC gone mad” basket shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the “redneck” element of the community running riot. I’m sure that for large sections of the population here, the “PC” response is the only explanatory one available. The knowledge of exactly what blackface, minstrelsy and the like conjure up and represent probably isn’t common knowledge in a place like Australia, where there hasn’t been the history of this type of denigration and ridicule of, for example, the indigenous people (there are, unfortunately, many other forms and vehicles that such derogation has taken). This knowledge, and the effect it has on the witnessing of the performance in question, is the domain of a very small section of the population here. Perhaps instead of incredulity, the response from those who understand something more of the deeper racial and historical roots of this problematic could (should?) be more educative: here is one of those spaces where the opportunity for awareness- raising (conscientization) of the wider community resides.

    The second point that occurred to me was to not let what could ultimately be essentially a ratings-generating device divert too much attention from the realities of race-based privilege and disadvantage occurring not too far from the screens of Hey Hey It’s Saturday on a daily basis. Marx’s (or Engels – can’t remember which) comment about bread and circuses comes to mind!


  6. I didn't watch the program (I find Darryl Somers irritating at the best of times) but I have seen enough reported in the media to be able to comment. I agree with Jon that it is important to look at this incident in context. In America nobody in their right mind (including those 'intelligent people' who performed on Hey Hey, apparently) would attempt to perform a skit such as this because there is a history, a knowledge and an awareness of exactly what this represents and exactly how offensive it is to a wide variety of people. In Australia this awareness is completely lacking and not due to the fact that we are a bunch of rednecks but rather because this knowledge does not feature in our context. Does this make us a country full of racists? No. Does it highlight our ignorance. Yes. Is ignorance a defence? No....But it does highlight the need for education on these topics.

    I think that the word racist is flung around way too flippantly. This skit has come up several times in conversation over the past week and most people do not seem to have any concept of why painting your face black would be so offensive. Does this make them racists? I don't believe so.

    I recall watching an episode of 'The View' with Whoopi Goldberg where she was saying that the word that she personally finds most racially insulting is 'watermelon'
    "Watermelon?" you ask. Having been called watermelon all through primary school (due to it's uncanny resemblence to the name Melanie) I can quite understand her distaste, but not for the same reason. In America the word 'watermelon' has unsavory connotations for African American people due to its 'slaves fruit picking on the plantation' associations. When someone says watermelon to Whoopi Goldberg she says she has to stop and ask herself whether they making a racial slur or do they mean that they have some in the fridge and are asking her if she wants some? As an Australian would this be something that you would know? Possibly not. Would your ignorance make you a racist?

    In February this year an American politician sent a supposedly amusing email out depicting the White House with the front lawn covered in a watermelon patch and a caption that said "No Easter egg hunt this Year" To top it off he sent it to a local businesswoman who was actually Black. Surprisingly she did not find it amusing...

    To me this is a perfect example of racism., in context, by people who should know better.

    I particularly liked the comment that was made about how the performers couldn't be racist because of their multicultural heritage. Personally I don't believe that being white is a prerequisite to being a racist.

    The Hey Hey skit has already received way more attention than it deserves. It was totally ignorant and in incredibly bad taste. End of story. Let it die a natural death.