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We’re not racist, we're just havin' a larf!

Hey Hey It's SaturdayLike many Australians, over the last two Wednesday nights I sat down for a hit of growing-up-in-Australia nostalgia, and watched Hey Hey It's Saturday. The show is the same age as me. Each year it celebrated its birthday just prior to me celebrating mine. And when I moved to Richmond in Victoria, I already knew the postcode, almost like the back of my hand: 'Write to Hey, Hey ... Richmond, 3121.'

When Red Faces began on Wednesday night I relaxed to enjoy a cheap laugh. When the 'Jackson Jive' took their place on stage, I began to grow uncomfortable. I said so to my companion. There was a sense of disbelief that this had passed through any processes there must have been, and so I began telling myself that it must be okay, because in 2009 it is being condoned on my TV.

But it wasn't. And my discomfort grew. I was grateful when someone else on the show pointed out that this wasn't right.

Listening to opinionated radio, and scanning through the thousands of comments on Facebook and other online forums, I feel even more troubled, and the need to write like never before. Indulge me while I purge.

The average Australian seems to say the same thing over and over again: We're not a racist country. We're just having a laugh. Those Americans are so uptight. Harry Connick Jr can just rack off home and leave us to our very funny, simple comedy.

It is perceived that our racism is just humour since we're only laughing and not deliberately hurting anyone else. We laugh at ourselves, we're Aussies, not like those bloody Americans.

Only we're not laughing at ourselves, and strangely enough, it's the white people who think we are.

'Laughing at someone is not racist. Laughing at someone is not harmful.' The child in the school yard may want to beg to differ. Sure, we're not meeting them after school to fight them with our fists, but anyone who has been the butt of cruel jokes will know that laughing isn't always benign.

Those defending the Red Faces act think it is harmless because we all know (apparently!) that Australia is not a racist country. As a teacher of Australian history I am beginning to see that many average Australians could use some further education on the topic. We have had a policy of racism through much of our time here in this land.

And as fairly recent guests to the country, our manners and behaviour leave much to be desired. We've paid no heed to our hosts, and all but decimated their culture and society. And our reciprocal hospitality is no laughing matter either. One may wish to talk to our Indian visitors about this.

Most posters on websites seem to have missed another crucial history lesson. Indeed someone argued that we often impersonate people, including black people. We do it for entertainment. Moreover, she says that there is no difference between the old impersonators who used to dance and sing on stage in boot polish like Fred Astaire, than our entertainment Wednesday night.

Unfortunately our average Australian has missed the fact that this also was insensitive and downright racist and that we have spent a vast number of years trying to undo this ridiculing and stereotyping.

I applaud Harry Connick Jr for having the courage and the conviction to point out to us the error in our Australian way of thinking. Laughing at someone else's expense is not harmless. Uncritically allowing messages of racism to permeate our culture will erode our best efforts to create a safe and just society.

While most of us stand around laughing, there will, inevitably, continue to be bullies at the front gate.

Meaghan Paul is chaplain at a Melbourne school. She submitted two articles to win equal second and highly commended in the inaugural Margaret Dooley Award. 

Topic tags: Meaghan Paul, Hey Hey It's Saturday, blackface, racist, harry connick jr, jackson jive



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Existing comments

Nobody appears to have noticed a far less ambiguous “is this racist or not?” moment from the show.

I just posted on this here….

Look at the last video from those three… in all the subsequent furore, that line of Somers appears to have been forgotten
DrThrottling | 09 October 2009

Newspolls show that the majority of people who watched the skit did not find it to be either racist or offensive. i.e. no malice intended. Not surprising really, because clearly there was none intended, except possibly in the minds of some. So your contention that the "average Australian has missed the fact that this also was insensitive and downright racist" is quite frankly disturbing.

If there's one thing that has come through this storm in a teacup it is how deeply resentful people feel not towards racial stereotyping, but towards being lectured by the "politically correct" on issues of social morality. And with good reason too. Seeing evil where none actually exists is unhealthy and hardly something to be encouraged.

As for Harry Connick Jnr - he is a singer, not a social activist, and I have a feeling that his holier-than-thou haughty attitude will hardly endear him to his fanbase.
Nathan Socci | 09 October 2009

Hey Hey Meaghan is correct. How do we differentiate bullying and racism from just having a 'larf'. The young students on the Glenferrie Road tram were laughing as one student held another student's arms and another put his hand up the boys being held shorts. Am I correct in thinking that this is assault? They then took his shoe and threatened to throw it out of the window. They all thought it was funny except the boy who was the victim.

I decided not to sit there and watch and feel sorry that I could not do anything about it so I grabbed the shoe of the young guy and gave it back to its owner. I then told the guy he was a bully. Bullying takes shape in many different forms including racism. As a country I believe we were very accepting of others but I believe that this is quickly changing. Please, please accept others for whom they are we are all different and that makes this world wonderful
Dianne Rose | 09 October 2009

So the red faces skit was unacceptable to Mr Connick. I wonder if he has watched South Park?

Product of the USA and lampoons EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE!
john kelly | 09 October 2009

Thanks for this article - it's the first commentary I've seen which does not leave me feeling as though I inhabit an alien planet.
Ann Tothill | 10 October 2009

Australia's 200 years of Anglo-Celtic ethnocentrism does not easily change its racist nature; we need courageous people like Connick, Todd Sampson (Q&A Oct 8) and Meaghan Paul to speak up for human dignity.
Neil Tolliday | 12 October 2009

Thank you Meaghan - I couldn't agree with you more. For a number of years I conducted anti-racism workshops in high schools with students from a range of cultural, religious and economic backgrounds, and one of the most frequent things I heard was this: it is not just a joke.

Some people may find racial stereotypes and comments funny, but that rarely includes the people who are experiencing them. Students told me that they felt excluded and demeaned, even by the jokes of some of their friends - but there was also a pressure for them to laugh too, to not kick up a fuss because that would be seen to be humourless and weak.
Isn't it time for grown ups to behave better?
C. | 12 October 2009

I entirely enorse Meaghan Paul's sentiments about the 'Hey, Hey!' skit, but does she have any evidence that Fred Astaire, one of the greatest artists of the last century, ever danced in black face?

Alan Saunders | 12 October 2009

In response to Alan, I am posting a link to a postcard for sale on ebay featuring Fred Astaire in blackface. I would like to assert, however, that I was quoting a post on the internet, not making the statement myself. http://cgi.ebay.com/Fred-Astaire-in-Blackface-in-1936-Postcard_W0QQitemZ370265338190QQcmdZViewItemQQimsxZ20090925?IMSfp=TL090925149001r33521
Meaghan Paul | 12 October 2009

Ho hum! Boring! The label ‘political correctness’ is used so often these days like a Molotov cocktail hurled against anyone speaking out against such appallingly crass episodes like the recent ‘Red Faces’ segment. It’s supposed to make people, who want to take a stance, against what they clearly see as insensitive and cruel, retreat into silence. Congratulations to all of those who don’t draw back and instead ‘take to the barricades’. Ouch! That’s really overdoing ‘politically correct’ isn’t it? But maybe the term is really more of a badge of courage these days than the conformists realise.
Hanifa Deen | 16 October 2009

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