October 20, 2010

Why minstrel shows are wrong

A year ago, some Australians got in trouble for portraying Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 as buffoons in blackface. Now someone explains why such minstrel shows are wrong.

One year on, Australians still fail to realise that there are situations in which minstrel shows may be inappropriate

By RichieAlmost exactly a year ago, the embalmed corpse of popular variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday arose from its tomb to revenge itself upon a world that dared to treat celebrities as people whose job it is to entertain an audience, rather than an untouchable showbiz aristocracy whom the audience has the privilege of watching fumble around and laugh at their own jokes. It did this by repeating every single mistake that got it axed in the first place, including booking a black and white minstrel act. As a tribute to Michael Jackson, who had recently died. Everyone involved defended the act as some kind of legitimate impression, even though the people involved talked like Amos & Andy, dressed as indistinguishable golliwogs, the guy playing Michael had white facepaint and the choreography was worse than our year six musical. Hey Hey was then renewed and is, at the time of writing, still on air. This isn’t precisely why I don’t have a television anymore, but it certainly didn’t help.

The outcry was...muted, at least in the mainstream media, on the basis that ‘Australians aren’t racist’ (even though Sydney was overrun by honest-to-God race riots less than five years ago, and I live in an area where Indian migrants have been the victims of “curry bashings” directly outside the building I live in), because they don’t personally see the problem with minstrel shows. It’s the same attitude that kept the BBC running The Black and White Minstrel Show until 1978, and why nobody cares about the specialty golliwog store on the way to the train station; American minstrel culture is, well, American, and in an Anglo context it’s very easy for the images to lose their connection to real suffering, violence and exploitation and become abstract oddness. I’ve read people defend The Black and White Minstrel Show on the basis that the minstrels “may as well have been purple” because it was a platform for showbiz musical numbers rather than skits about slavery. This is an accurate description of the program’s content--you can watch a bit here, although obviously it’s understandable if you don’t want to--but they weren’t purple, or green, or orange, they were specifically dark brown with exaggerated lips, eyes and fuzzy wigs because those features carried specific racial connotations. Failure--or, more likely, unwillingness--to understand the implications of the image doesn’t alter those implications, and failure to grasp why minstrelsy isn’t harmless fun by two thousand and nine is willful, pig-headed ignorance.

(Traditionally, this is where some idiot decides to jump in and whine about people being “offended”. Racism, or any other -ism, is not bad because it offends people, it’s bad because it degrades and dehumanises people, and this has real consequences. Returning to the 2005 Sydney race riots, whether or not the Lebanese Muslim community were offended by the white community stereotyping them as rapists and terrorist sympathisers is irrelevant next to the fact that, by stereotyping them as rapists and terrorist sympathisers, the white community were able to justify forming mobs and using physical violence to try and force anyone vaguely swarthy out of “their” country. It’s infuriating to hear these things discussed as if they’re a purely academic debate about whether or not we’re too politically correct, when in reality it’s people trying to deal with something that’s real, immediate and dangerous).
Comment:  Excellent points, Richie. I frequently note the real harm of the stereotyping: the microaggrssion and bullying that can escalate into assault and other hate crimes. The sense of being ignored and invisible that can lead to depression and suicide. If hurt feelings were the only problem, people wouldn't spend so much time battling racism and stereotyping. But the experts tell us how these problems cause real psychological and physical harm.

Unfortunately, Westerners dress up in redface and prance around as "Indians" constantly. These actions are essentially the same as minstrel shows. Some recent examples:

Racism in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson
Tribal girls in Hot 'n' Fun video
Most racist musical group ever?
"Authentic" chiefs from "Blackhawks" tribe
Cowboys & Findians in The Dudesons

And the proverbial much more.

The key difference? Most Westerners understand that dressing up in blackface is offensive and wrong. Most Westerners don't understand that dressing up as faux Indians is equally offensive and wrong. As with the BBC Minstrel Show that went on until 1978, people need to learn that this behavior is no longer acceptable.

For more on the subject, see Stereotypes as Mental Maps, Why People Don't Care About Indians, and The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence.

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