Maxine Beneba Clarke on Australia’s unexamined racism

In her essay, ‘White Australia has a blackface history’, Maxine Clarke looks at the past, present and personal of blackface in Australia:

8 October 2009

The woman across the aisle from me on the train was reading a newspaper. She squinted at the picture on the cover, chuckling to herself. I leaned over to see what she was smiling about. Her eyes met mine and she quickly folded the paper in quarters, turned it over on her lap and stared out the window. Curious, I looked around at the other passengers. A patchwork of open newspapers stared back at me. On all the covers was a photograph of four men dressed in white suits, faces smeared in black face paint, heads covered with shiny polyester afro wigs. ‘Hey Hey Left Redfaced’ announced the front-page slogan.

Hey Hey It’s Saturday had aired a skit with four blacked-up performers playing the Jackson Five, with the Michael character appearing in whiteface. American musician Harry Connick Jr, a guest judge, voiced his disgust: ‘If they turned up looking like that in the United States, it would be like, “Hey, hey, there’s no more show!”’ He awarded the performers a zero.

Backstage, host Daryl Somers reluctantly negotiated an on-air apology with Connick. When it came, the apology was issued specifically to the musician himself, rather than to people of colour or any offended viewers.

‘Are those clowns, Mum? Can I go and see the clown show?’ my three-year-old responded when I absentmindedly plonked a copy of the paper down on the coffee table. I sighed, looked down at him and ran a hand through his curls – we had been here before.

If I were Winston in Orwell’s dystopia, the door in the interrogation chamber would lead to a Westfield mall the size of New South Wales and I would betray family and friend alike to escape it. Yet somehow my search for an extension to my son’s wooden train set had led me to Chadstone: the suburban shopping mall to swallow all suburban shopping malls.

Read the rest of the essay.

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  1. In her essay, Maxine refers to “the sentiments of that 69 per cent – the 69 per cent of Australians that, according to News Limited, considered Hey Hey’s blackface skit fun family entertainment.” I assume she means this.

    No doubt everyone knows that you can’t make reliable inferences about a population by plonking a poll on your website and asking respondents to click through. Nobody would cite it (or one of those nightly news polls that asks people to phone in) in a scholarly paper. But apparently the number is considered “suggestive”, or something – useful enough to prove a point in an article like this.

    For pete’s sake, it isn’t. You’d be better off saying “I get the impression that a lot of Aussies are racist.”

  2. very lucky
    very amazing writing
    very speaking how my students do bra.
    am i paying them out? i cant help it!!!
    very wonderfully articulated articles.
    question is — audience
    question remains, as Scout found out, how d’ya speak the language of those who dont wanna learn no more, and what makes someone listen to something or read something that that is not targeted at their ‘market’?
    OR what kind of media would spark an audience not inclined to be reading literary magazines or going to a concert on the st kilda esplanade, to react to something that is ‘racist’?

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