In this day and age, racism is one thing that many can agree is an unacceptable facet of society. It’s something that doesn’t belong in our streets, in our homes, and definitely not on our television screens. But what happens when a little light-hearted comedy becomes the fire of a racism debate? Where do we draw the line between what is racist and what is a stroke of comic genius?
Here in the land down under, we seem to have a vaguely different idea to other nations around the world of what actually constitutes as racism. Back in 2009, this disparity became quite apparent. Many of us would remember “that skit” on the popular primetime television show Hey Hey It’s Saturday that left American guest host, Harry Connick Jnr, absolutely mortified. A group of esteemed surgeons took to the stage to perform a tribute to the Jackson 5, with their faces painted black, and one painted white.
Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s production team approved the skit before it aired, clearly being unaware of the impact of ‘blackface’ humour and underestimating the uproar that would occur in Australia and around the world. ‘Blackface’ humour, in which a white person paints their face black and pretends to be black, holds very negative connotations around the globe, especially in America (Mahony 2009). This dates back to as early as the 19th century, when theatre performers would dress like black people, by blackening their faces with shoe polish, exaggerating the size of their lips, wearing torn clothes and depicting themselves as thieves, baffoons, pathological liars and devils (Mahony 2009). It begins to become apparent why the Jackson 5 performance caused such an outcry. However, this wasn’t the performers’ intention at all. Comedy was. They were simply ‘dressing up’ to fit their character’s role.
‘Black face’ wasn’t the first time the issue of ‘racism’ as a form of comedy has been a cause for concern and moral panic, and it certainly wont be the last. Late last year, Australia was divided over the SBS series Legally Brown, a show that features Muslim comedian Nazeem Hussain. He plays on the typical stereotypes associated with his minority culture in order to confront Australian audiences (Aly 2013). Many have accused the show of racism and ‘reverse racism’, due to Hussain poking fun at whites, when it is politically incorrect for whites to poke fun at them.
Well, haters, you have it all wrong. For actual racism to occur, there needs to exist a power dynamic in order for it to work. Since people of colour hold little sway in defining the terms of white existence, it’s clear that racial jokes and slurs directed at whites are no more than that: jokes and slurs. They carry little weight, because there is no actual power behind them (Cheney-Rice 2014).
RACISM (def): Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior
It’s not racism, or even reverse racism for that matter. It’s comedy, Australia. Let us enjoy it.
Aly, W 2013, ‘Legally brown: Muslim comedian finds the funny in radical, be it jihadists or bogans’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September, viewed 7 May 2014.
Cheney-Rice, Z 2014, ‘This Comedian Brilliantly Destroys the Myth of “Reverse Racism” in Less Than 3 Minutes’, PolicyMic, 14 February, viewed 7 May 2014.
Mahoney, M 2009, ‘What’s all the fuss about ‘blackface’’, Crikey, 8 October, viewed 7 May 2014.