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We're not racist, we're Aussies

"Race" riots, attacks targeting foreign students and a questionable comedy routine have exposed an ugly side of the Australian character.

A member of National Arya Student Association holds a placard as he shouts slogans during a protest against the recent attacks on Indian students in Australia, in New Delhi, June 3, 2009. Australia's government said that racism was not behind a string of violent attacks on Indian students. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

SYDNEY, Australia — It was meant as a joke. But when five young Australian men took to the stage of a TV variety show in blackface, the joke fell flat.

The skit, aired recently on the long-running program “Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday,” was a Jackson Five parody in which contestants — with Afro wigs and faces painted black save for toothpaste grins — gyrated before an overwhelmingly white audience.

Harry Connick Jr., the American singer who had been touring Australia and invited on the program as a guest judge, was visibly shocked throughout the routine and scored it zero out of 10. When, after a commercial break, it dawned on the show's host, Daryl Somers, to make an awkward apology to anyone who had been offended, a disapproving Connick Jr. said: “Man, if they turned up looking like that in the United States, it'd be ‘Hey, Hey, There's No More Show.’”

The clip went viral.

It was picked up by the major U.S. networks and dissected by everyone from FOX’s Bill O’Reilly to the panel on “The View.” Germaine Greer, an Australian feminist author who now lives in the U.K., labeled the skit a “piece of s—t.” Others, like the Guardian’s Marina Hyde, saw more proof of Down Under reverting to its dark side — a racist, provincial backwater, the runt of the litter. She noted wryly: “We thank the nation for yet another important contribution to the annals of human culture.”

The “Hey, Hey” controversy comes at a time when many in Australia are expressing concern about a subterranean surge in racism.

This year, a spate of attacks in two major Australian cities targeting Indian students — including one attack in which a 25-year-old was stabbed with a screwdriver — has generated a publicity nightmare for the educational institutions that rely on income from overseas enrollments.

In other specific instances widely criticized as racially inflammatory, refugees from war-torn Sudan were in 2007 accused — by a government minister, no less — of failing to integrate.

And in 2005, three days of riots and revenge attacks between Arab Muslim gangs on one side and "white" Australians on the other — in a laid-back beachside suburb of Sydney sparked much debate about the underlying racial tensions in Australian society.

As Todd Sampson, a panelist on the local ABC television show “Q&A” noted: “If you were sitting in Canada or in America or England … the snippets you would be getting of Australia would add up to a terrible picture.”

To those who would defend Australia's record on inclusiveness and the premise that it — like the U.S. — is a country founded by immigrants, the incidents can and should be viewed in isolation: A few bad apples sullying the reputation of 20-odd million decent, fair-minded people.