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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.

Yet it is interesting that local reaction to the blackface skit was, for the most part, several beats behind the rest of the world. In several online newspaper polls, thumping majorities denied that the skit was racist or tasteless. Even a liberal progressive such as Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, visiting the U.S. at the time the skit aired, said it was “meant to be humorous and would be taken in that spirit by most Australians.”

This from the same lawmaker who, earlier this year, visited India to quell the growing outrage there at the inadequate official response to the student attacks.

How to make sense of this discrepancy, without defending the indefensible?

The first clue for an outsider is that Australia — generally speaking — is a country that prides itself on its irreverence, a place where “taking the piss” is considered a national pastime. Things can get a bit bawdy, even a little crass — but generally, it's "no offense intended."

Self-deprecation is another Australian trait. Seen in this light, it's not surprising many Australians did not perceive the blackface skit to be racist. Not only were they unfamiliar with historic U.S. sensitivities in relation to black minstrel comedy — but the joke was so clearly on the buffoons performing the skit. An Australian judge on the "Hey, Hey" panel actually scored the act a seven out of 10.

There is a counter-narrative, of course — that Australia has always had a blind-spot on issues of race. Australia’s indigenous population has a history of being grossly maltreated. The discriminatory "White Australia" policy — under which successive governments intentionally restricted "non-white" immigration to Australia — only ended as late as 1973.

Migrants to Australia have always initially jostled to fit in.

In the 1950s and '60s, Italian and Greek migrants were branded "wogs," an insult that is generally laughed off today. In the mid-1990s, Pauline Hanson, an independent lawmaker with an acerbic nationalist streak, briefly gained notoriety with her accusation that Australia was being “swamped by Asians." More recent targets have been Lebanese Muslims and the Sudanese.