The problem with ignorance is it doesn’t know itself
A controversial segment from Australia’s much-loved Hey Hey It’s Saturday reunion has re-ignited the debate over political correctness. Samuel Webster asks: was Harry Connick Jr being over-sensitive when he took offense to the Jackson Jive, or have we become immune to racism when it is masked by humour?
The term ‘political correctness’ has lost its meaning. It used to imply a progression forward to a society where people of all minorities could be integrated without prejudice or vilification. But soon two simple words were attached to the idea, and the concept fell apart. Those two words were ‘gone mad’, and it seemed that people who tried to avoid offending others were labelled overly-sensitive. The world screamed ‘political correctness gone mad’, and ignorance thrived under the guise of humour.
Last night on the second part of the Hey, Hey it’s Saturday Reunion special, five people dressed as ‘Jackson Jive’ spoofed the world-famous pop band by appearing with blackened faces (except for the lead singer, whose white skin represented Michael Jackson’s vitiligo). Watch the clip here. Harry Connick Jr sat on the judging panel. He looked uncomfortable and at the end of the act, scored the group zero. Later, he announced that as an American he had to say something:
“I know it was done humourously, 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. If I knew that was going to be part of the show, I probably… I definitely wouldn’t have done it.”
While watching the show last night, I couldn’t help but think that the form of the humour does, in some way, represent male Australian stereotypes from 20 years ago. Women are noticeably absent (except for Livinia Nixon who is constantly referred to as being ‘with child’). That’s not such a bad thing by itself, Hey Hey exists within the collective nostalgia, but an act like Jackson Jive not only propels the show into deep-seated racism, it also begs us to rethink our progression. How did their original performance get through the first stages of the competition? Why did it take a famous American guest to point out the bigotry?
There is a lot of backlash on message boards this morning about Harry Connick Jr sticking his nose in where it’s not welcome, but to be honest, it was his duty to speak up. Not only as an American on foreign shores, but as a musician. Harry’s bread and butter is built from a musical genre created by the people his country enslaved for years, his career has occurred entirely within an industry which has been at the forefront of racial integration (in a sense of accepting, not assimilating of course). The truth is, it shouldn’t have gotten this far.
On Channel Seven’s Sunrise website, Julie, a viewer from Redcliffe commented:
“I Don’t belive that anyone called in Harry’s words “blacks baffoons” get a life harry…. would it have mattered if they came out yellow,pink,orange????? what a goose…” (sic)
If you will excuse the use of racist stereotypes to make my point: yes, it would have mattered had those people come out different colours, if there were connotations to those colours. A yellow man proclaiming he was Asian, a red man claiming he was Russian – both of these would be considered ignorant and archaic.
However, it is important to move away from the idea that it was simply the portrayal of black people that was racist. The real deal is how it was done. An online comment to The Daily Telegraph today says:
“All this was a send up of Michael Jackson not negro americans (sic). We need to keep our sense of humour or risk being a bunch of wingers (sic). We need to be able to laugh at ourselves as no one is perfect and we have to stop blaming everyone else for our own shortcomings.” (Jacinta Maas)
Blackface, the act wherein white people paint their faces black and act as if they are African American, was a theatrical tradition originating in the early 19th century, while slavery was still a reality. The characters portrayed played upon archetypal negative stereotypes. As Harry Connick Jr explained, it portrayed people of the minority culture as buffoons. It is racist due to the connotations it has of black people as a lesser race, animalistic and clown-like, and for the implications it bears that black people could not share the stage with white people. It mimicked, humiliated and extradited the culture from mainstream society. As Andrew G (of Australian Idol and radio fame) posted on his twitter last night,
“FACT: Blackface is NOT ok. Not now, not ever. End of story.”
When asked by another twitter user whether we were becoming a little too precious, Andrew G responded firmly:
“No, it is RACISM.”
And to tell you the truth, I agree 100%. Put the same act on Idol and see how long it lasts before a minority speaks up. Put it on The Chaser and they would be in the tabloids for weeks. Why then, as we take a step back in time to the nostalgic glory that was Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday, do we suddenly gain tolerance for our ignorance, forgetting our progression towards racial equality, and casting down those who speak sense as humourless and out of line?
Our mockery of political correctness has kept our ignorance alive.
Unfortunately, the truth is that ignorance hides itself within the ignorant. We never see it within ourselves, we need to be shown.
Was Harry Connick Jr too sensitive? Or has society grown tolerant towards racism masked as humour? Have your say below.