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.
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.
According to Gautam Gupta, of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia: "Bullying has always been an issue in this culture. If you look at every level, it is entrenched. Every community who is new in this society is targeted, until they are integrated into the mainstream and then people find someone else to bully."
In the latest sorry saga — the attacks on Indian students — Gupta noted that his organization fielded between five and eight new complaints each week. “The mood is pretty distressed,” he told GlobalPost. “There’s a lot of frustration stemming from the fact that the attacks don’t seem to be stopping. What should the students do — should they leave Australia, drop their studies? Defend themselves? Go to the police? There’s confusion.”
Empirical measures of racism in Australia are becoming more sophisticated. In 2006, researchers for the Challenging Racism Project surveyed 1,700 residents in Australia’s three major migrant cities — Sydney (which accommodates about 40 percent of recent arrivals), Melbourne (27 percent) and Perth (9 percent). About one in five residents in these cities said they had experienced race hate talk — most commonly, a derogatory slang name leveled at their ethnic group.
Australia’s evolution into a multicultural society has generally been very successful, according to Professor Kevin Dunn of the University of Western Sydney, and a lead researcher on the Challenging Racism Project. He told GlobalPost: “One in 10 Australians are what we refer to as ‘old racists.’ They believe some races are inferior, some are superior and that they should be kept separate. That figure is pretty good by world standards, but that’s still a lot of people and they can cause Australian community relations harm.
“But then there’s a good deal of people who are not sensitive about cultural differences … the way the things they say and the assumptions they have are hurtful. That’s because we aren’t managing cultural diversity well. It would be better if we were all a bit more sensitive and knew about other cultures.”
A memo, perhaps, to the producers of "Hey, Hey" to find some new material.