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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

October 14, 2009

Written by C.N.

Harry Connick Jr., Blackface, and Recognizing White Privilege

Earlier this week, musician, actor, and community activist Harry Connick Jr. was a guest judge on the Australian talent show Hey Hey It’s Saturday. One of the acts was a skit featuring a group of White men wearing blackface (using dark-colored makeup to appear racially Black), doing an impression of the Jackson Five. As ABC News reports and this video segment shows, Connick’s reaction to their performance was swift and sharp:

[Connick] was visibly shocked by the skit, in which [five] men with afro wigs and blackface sang and danced behind a Michael Jackson impersonator wearing white makeup. Connick, 42, gave the performance a zero score and told them that if it had been done in the United States it would have been pulled off the air.

Blackface was a traditional trope of minstrel shows in the U.S. that dates to the 19th century. Whites playing stock black characters — usually offensive stereotypes meant to demean — rubbed coal, grease or shoe polish on their faces. . . .

Public reaction to the “Hey Hey” performance in online forums was mixed. Some Australians said they were embarrassed such a racist sketch had been broadcast, while others said detractors were too politically correct and that the skit was funny. . . . Anand Deva, the frontman of the “Jackson Jive” act, said it was not meant to cause offense but added he would not have performed it in the United States.

White teenagers in blackface

There are two interesting sociological points to note here. The first is the apparent differences in racial attitudes between the U.S. and Australia. That is, even though many Americans still are rather ignorant of the racial significance and racist legacy of blackface and still wear it from time to time (especially around this time of year, Halloween, as seen in the photo on the right), for the most part, I will presume that most Americans understand that blackface is offensive (or at least the reactions and criticisms to it are much more intense).

With that in mind, it is notable to see that in Australia, this sensitivity and recognition of blackface do not exist to the same level. In fact, despite the Australian government’s recent official apology to the aborigine population for centuries of racism, in general the racial attitudes of the Australian public seem to be a few decades behind that of the U.S. in terms of racial understanding.

This diminished level of cultural knowledge comes through in the responses by Anand Deva in defending his group’s skit with the usual refrain, “It wasn’t meant to be offensive, it was just a joke.” What he and other Australians do defend the skit don’t understand is that whatever the intent, the result was that it definitely came across as racist and offensive.

Secondly, the reason why they don’t understand why it was offensive is because as Whites in a White majority society, they have the position of being able to make fun of non-Whites while claiming that they did not intend it to be offensive. That, my friends, is the quintessential definition of White privilege.

As it relates back to Harry Connick Jr., as the video segment notes, he has been accused of being hypocritical because he participated in a previous comedy skit (apparently from MadTV) in which he played some kind of witch or voodoo doctor that some argue also makes fun of Blacks, although Connick counters that his character in the skit was actually White.

Despite this criticism of Connick, I give him credit for speaking up in the moment and denouncing the skit as racist and offensive. It takes courage to recognize such racial ignorance first of all, and second, to speak up and stand in opposition to it, rather than just keeping quiet, as many Americans from any racial background but particularly Whites, are more likely to do.

I know that as a native of New Orleans, Connick was affected by how his city and particularly the Black community were both devastated after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the disaster, he organized several benefits and other activities to begin rebuilding the city and its inhabitants.

At this point, I can only speculate, but I suspect that as a result of Hurricane Katrina and perhaps after understanding the cultural consequences of such media portrayals as his MadTV skit, he “got it” — that as an affluent entertainer and as a White person, he is very privileged person and has a lot of power and influence that can be used to make fun of people, or to help uplift them.

In other words, Connick’s actions — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and in regard to this blackface skit — are a great illustration of what I tell me students all the time: for racism to continue, individual Whites like you (referring to my students) do not have to commit racist acts yourself. Instead, for it to continue year after year, generation after generation, all you have to do is to sit by and accept the consequences of discrimination committed against others.

In other words, silence equals acceptance.


October 6, 2008

Written by C.N.

Racial Attitudes in Australia

While the focus of this blog is on race issue inside the U.S., I think it’s important to (1) recognize how such issues have globalized and transnational connections and (2) understand the state of race relations in other countries. With that second point in mind, the BBC News has an article about a new report on racial attitudes in Australia:

The study, titled “Challenging Racism: The Anti-Racism Research Project”, interviewed 12,500 people over almost a decade. A key finding was that while Australians in general are welcoming of diversity, the view of national identity remains narrow.

The group most often singled out as “not belonging” in Australia was Muslims or people from the Middle East, Professor Dunn told reporters on the weekend. . . . Professor Dunn said indigenous Australians were the next group on the “not belonging” list.

He added there was evidence of an emerging antipathy towards black Africans after higher immigration from countries such as Sudan and Somalia. About one in 10 people said they did not approve of intercultural marriages – about the same number who said they believed that not all races were equal. . . . .

“It’s better than in many other parts of the world, certainly in parts of western Europe where three in 10 people would hold those views,” he said. . . . However, more than 80% of people see cultural diversity as a benefit “and that’s a good thing for Australian society,” the professor said.

His findings also suggested that New South Wales is the country’s most racist state. This was explained by Mr Dunn as due to Sydney’s role as the largest recipient of immigrants.

My first reaction is, I find it rather ironic and actually, pretty outrageous that indigenous Australians can be seen as “not belonging” in Australia when in fact, they were the first ones there and it was the European colonizers who basically took over the country and oppressed the Aborigines. That is about as arrogant as you can get.

Beyond that, it’s probably difficult to understand these numbers in isolation. That is, while a significant portion (80%) of Australians see diversity as a benefit for their country, 10% still believe that some races are superior to others. So the question is, if we use a very simplified interpretation and say that 10% of Australians are “racist,” is that 10% a big number, or a small number?

In other words, is the glass half empty or half full? Should we focus on the 80% who think diversity is good, or the 10% who apparently hold blatantly racist opinions?

To try to give you some perspective and a point for comparison, back in January 2008, I posted about two repots on racial attitudes in the U.S.. One of the results was that of all American adults surveyed in one study, 75% believed that Whites and Blacks got along “very well” or “pretty well, while 20% believed it was more like “not too well” or “not well at all.”

Results from the other study that I posted about indicate that around 40% of Latinos and Asian Americans hold stereotyped beliefs about African Americans. Nonetheless, other results from the same study showed that 86% of Asians, 89% of African Americans, and 92% of Latinos agreed with the statement, “African Americans, Latinos, and Asians have many similar problems. They should put aside their differences and work together on issues that affect their communities.”

So in other words, there seems to be some ways in which race relations in the U.S. may look somewhat negative or discouraging while at the same time, other ways in which they look positive and encouraging. What that tells us is, race relations is a very complicated issue and not one that can be easily reduced to a single question or even a single survey.

Sociologists like me make it our career to examine and analyze race relations, and judging by the hundreds of posts I’ve written on this subject on this blog, you should get the idea that there is a wide variety of points, angles, and interpretations for any particular issue related to race relations.

With that in mind and going back to my original question, it does not look like the data on racial attitudes in Australia is that much different than that in the U.S. Both countries are westernized, industrialized, and majority White, so there are many historical, demographic, and cultural similarities.

For my readers who have been to Australia, or any other “western” country, have you noticed any notable differences in terms of race relations/racial attitudes between there and here in the U.S.?