As a postscript to my previous post, I am amazed and saddened that some Australians have taken so badly the comments made by Harry Connick, Jr of late.
Connick Jr. explained quite articulately why “black face” is offensive in the U.S.A. He was very careful not to call the performers of the Jackson Jive act themselves racists. But he certainly pointed out that black and white minstrels came out of a place of racism. Connick Jr. also has several African American musicians in his band, which performed after the sketch, and of course, would have been duty bound to respond on their behalf.
Some Australians aren’t that across the meaning behind “black face”. In fact, many of us were brought up on the British version of the “Black and White Minstrel” show which ran until 1978, which had been somewhat sanitised from the original racist meaning. This of course made it’s way into the Australian sense of humour.
But rather than understand why some people could be offended, they have gotten all huffy about a foreigner pointing the finger at us. Which of course, we do on a regular basis. They go on to question his integrity and America’s history, deflecting form the issue at hand. Harry Connick Jr is not the issue of the argument. He simply posed the question. The notion that just because “black face” is racist in America doesn’t necessarily mean that it is racist in Australia is one I disagree with whole heartedly.
Racism is racism. Full stop.
What Connick Jr. himself may have failed to understand was that by speaking up, he broke one of Australia’s cardinal rules: he wasn’t playing along as “one of the boys”. He saw something he disagreed with and chose not to stay silent. In days gone back in the 1990’s when I was working on the Sydney production of Miss Saigon I face a similar situation when two family members tried to make Asian jokes with me. The joke tellers didn’t actually realise nor care that these jokes were inadvertently aimed at some of my dearest friends. When I responded with, “That’s enough of that” and “If you continue with this I will leave,” I received looks of astonishment that I could even say such things about their harmless bit of fun. It wouldn’t surprise you to know that there weren’t any Asian people in the room at the time. My stance about this Jackson Jive issue has been dubbed by another relative as “political point scoring”. With whom, I’m not entirely sure.
In this same vein the Jackson Jive were not honouring the Jackson 5 by their performance. They were clearly parodying them. Why else would the person playing Michael appear in “white face”. This can only echo back to the original intentions of “minstrels”, making African Americans look like fools.
Australians pride themselves on not taking themselves to seriously. Something that I entirely embrace. But let’s be clear, this performance by the Jackson Jive was no satire like Kath & Kim, Muriel’s Wedding or Kingswood Country. All these productions very comically parody Australians and pick us up on our foibles. In these productions we’re are able to see a little of ourselves, and still laugh. This performance on Hey Hey It’s Saturday was meant to light heartedly poke fun at Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. But the manner in which it was delivered was distasteful and questionable at best.
You can read Harry Connick, Jr.’s official response here.