We’ve Spent So Much Time Trying to Not Make Black People Look Like Buffoons: The Looks of Racism

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

The Racialicious inbox has been flooded this week with emails about this race scandal from Australia:

A comedy act involving five men in afro wigs and black make-up on their faces during an Australian variety show has been criticised by Harry Connick Jr.

The US singer and actor, who was serving as a judge on Wednesday’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday, scored the act based on the Jackson Five a zero.

Watch the video, it’s painfully fascinating (…and look out for Connick Jr’s face at 1:49, it’s pretty fantastic):

But what’s more fascinating is how the whole scandal has prompted a conversation about…(drumroll please)…the Least Racist Country!

Witness the battle to be the Least Racist Country! on this Gawker comment thread (sent to us by reader Carleandria): “In Australia, Blackface Is Still Only Slightly Offensive”. The article is basically about how America must be waaaay better than Australia, and its comments section is rife with anxious Australians trying to defend their country:

To Americans, blackface is particularly abhorrent because of the cultural background to it – beyond being culturally insensitive, it is a signifier of all kinds of problems in America’s past.

While you would hope that all educated Australians would know about this background and understand that the cultural insensitivity goes beyond the superficial, American history is not our own, and you can’t expect all Australians to appreciate the nuances that you see in the performance.

Australia doesn’t have the same racial issues and past with Africans as we do in the US. For them (and Europeans too) this is a non-issue.

So… America has its own history, it kidnapped africans and tortured them. Hang on a sec, up until 6 months ago, America as government policy kidnapped people and tortured them, or is that not racist cause it wasnt against african americans, they were just Arabs! Yet America still tries to take the moral high ground and lecture the world on how to behave!! Simply breathtaking! Americans need to stop bombing everyone and lose some weight.

But it was this comment that really kicked off the battle to be the Least Racist Country!:

You don’t know what your talking about. Racism in Australia and Europe is pretty horrible. Where do you think the racist skinhead movement came from?…Racism in the US is bad and in the rest of the world it is worse. The players may change but the game remains the same.

Canada, as in most things, is probably the exception.

(Sidebar: as a Canadian who actually had to move to an American blog in order to get in on a decent online conversation about race, I find that last line totally redonculous. But that’s for another post.)

It never fails to amaze me that, despite the panoply of racist cultures across the globe – including the one we live in – one of the worst things you can call someone is racist. Hence, as soon as anyone is caught out as a racist, be it an individual, an organisation, or a country, an elaborate dance ensues wherein the major players desperately try to prove that they are not racists. Anybody else remember Michael Richards insisting that he was not a racist, while giving an apology for screaming racial slurs?

Again, people desperately try to prove that they are not racists. Rarely do people respond to accusations that they are racist by desperately trying to not be racist.

Which is why the battle to be the Least Racist Country! is not about actual quality of life or evidence of equal access across different racial groups – instead it is about who appears to be the Least Racist.

That’s also why apologies for racist acts are rarely real apologies. Instead they tend to focus on being sorry that someone interpreted or viewed something as racist – in other words, they’re sorry that something looked racist.

This is what Daryl Somers, the host of the variety show, said to Connick Jr in apology:

I know that to your countrymen, that’s an insult to have a blackface routine like that on the show, so I do apologize to you.

Again, sorry that you Americans perceive blackface to be insulting. To which of course the audience gave rousing applause, pleased to have the chance to appear unRacist, when earlier they had been killing themselves laughing over the blackface skit.

Consider Harry Connick Jr’s statement at the end of the show (emphasis mine):

I just want to say on behalf of my country, I know [the blackface skit] was done humorously, but we’ve spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart. And I know it was in good fun and the last thing I want to do is take this show to kind of a down level. Because you know how much I love this show and this country.

But I feel like I’m at home here and if I knew that [blackface] was going to be part of the show I probably, I definitely wouldn’t have done [the show].

Thank you for the opportunity [to speak], I’ve got to give it up because I told [Somers how I felt] at the break and he said ‘Man, you need to speak as an American.’ Not as a white American or a black American but as an American I need to say this.

Yup, it’s also about appearance. He didn’t say “We take racism against black folks very seriously,” but we try to not make black people look like buffoons.

I can’t help but get the sense that the Americans on the Gawker thread are delighted that for once, they don’t look like the only racist a-holes, the Australians are trying to invent new strategies to look less racist (either by insisting that American and Australian history are too different for blackface to have the same significance in Australia, or by being overly apologetic on behalf of an entire nation…a move that doesn’t make much sense), and the Canadians are feeling smugly pleased by their excellent appearance of unRacism.

People don’t want to talk about racism, they want to talk about the looks of racism.

But.

I have to say that I like what Harry Connick Jr. did. And that I don’t think that he just did it because he doesn’t want to look like he is going along with racism. I think that he actually did not want to go along with racism. There were two things that he said that I liked:

that when we see something like that we take it really to heart.

Unless the whole thing was staged and scripted to boost Connick Jr’s career (seems quite unlikely to me) you have to guess that he was just talking off the top of his head. From the look on his face in the video, and the words “we take it really to heart,” you get the sense that he had a real, visceral reaction to the blackface thing. Not a superficial reaction about the looks of things, but a real feeling in his gut (or heart I guess) that it’s just not right for folks to wear black make-up on their faces.

And you know, for white folks it is that real feeling in your gut – not an advanced degree in anti-racism studies – that is the foundation of being an ally.

And then I also liked this:

‘Man, you need to speak as an American.’ Not as a white American or a black American but as an American I need to say this.

Because sincere or not (and like I said I do think he was sincere) real allyhood is also about realising that racism sucks, not just for POCs, but for everybody.


Thanks to Emily and Carleandria for the tip!