Jackson Jive: the return of Aussie racism?

Australia’s bizarre TV ‘black face’ scandal springs more from the politics of identity than old-fashioned racism.

Guy Rundle

Topics Politics

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‘Coming from the country I’m from’, said American crooner-cum-actor Harry Connick Jr to the bemused host of the Australian TV show Hey Hey It’s Saturday, ‘where we’ve struggled for so long to not represent black people as buffoons, well if I’d known this was going to be on, I wouldn’t have appeared on the show’. The audience, who had come for an evening of knockabout comedy looked bemused at this sudden turn. What the hell was happening?

Hey Hey It’s Saturday, an anarchic live variety show, was a fixture of Australian TV for decades until the 1990s. After much fanfare this year, two reunion episodes of the show had been announced to great excitement – especially as they would include one of the favourite segments, ‘Red Faces’, an anti-talent show in the manner of the Gong Show.

It was in this segment that things went horribly wrong: a team of medical students and junior doctors came on as an act called the ‘Jackson Jive’ – four white men with full minstrel black faces, doing a scratch version of a Jackson 5 song. Then a fifth man, in a white face, came out to play Michael. Had he been black himself, the act would have been a neat reversal, and they might have got away with it. But, as he was also white, and the song itself was pretty lame, one watched open-mouthed in shock. Not at a pretty tacky act, channelling old racist images without doing much ironic or interesting with them, but at the fact that no one at Australia’s largest commercial TV network, during rehearsal or planning, had said ‘Stop. Are you insane?’. You couldn’t blame Connick for wanting to dissociate himself from it.

If the show’s hosts didn’t realise what trouble they were in until Connick (one of the judges on the segment’s panel) piped up, they got a lesson the next day, when the show ripped round the world courtesy of YouTube, and a nation that presents itself to the world, and to itself, as a post-racist multicultural society with a few residual problems, came off as some sort of grinning, mugging version of Alabama circa 1956.

I didn’t need to visit the website of British newspaper, the Guardian, to know that they would think all their secular holiday seasons had come at once. Moreover, there wasn’t much one could say against it. The act was not presented as a conscious, playful experiment with racism of the England People Very Nice sort. Its public airing was a result of multi-level stupidity, itself an exact consequence of the nation’s demented desire to see itself as a global innocent. Us? Racist? We’re just folks who want to have fun.

Twenty-four hours into the scandal, absurdity reigned. In an interview conducted in a flight lounge, the show’s host Daryl Somers showed no real understanding of what had happened, talking unctuously about how the members of the act had meant no offence. The fact that one member of the act was Indian, and another Lebanese-Australian, prompted a debate about the white/non-white boundary that would not have sounded out of place in an old South African Racial Classification Board hearing. Elsewhere, Germaine Greer, appearing on the local version of Any Questions, wondered aloud why people weren’t equally angry over drag acts. [The original version of this article included a reference to an appearance by Connick on MadTV: see this letter for the correction.]

To compound matters, it was then revealed that the segment had been sponsored by the manufacturers of Vegemite, the jet-black local variant of Marmite, after the previous week’s segment winner had gained his victory by smearing his naked body in the stuff. Through the newspapers, the radio phone-in shows and conversations in pubs and cafes, one question was dominant: is Australia a racist country?

White Australia’s navel gazing

This question has been circulating for years as an obsessive topic among Australians, usually accompanied by the immediate answer ‘no’. It reflects the profound unease of a white society, whose expansion from a settler economy involved the wholesale massacre of indigenous people, followed by various eugenics-inspired schemes for the remainder’s simultaneous improvement and dissolution as a people. This is a society that went from a system of governance based on racial privilege (the first act of Australia and the world’s first Labour government was to pass ‘the White Australia Act’) to a postwar process of wholesale labour importation, culturally engineered as first assimilation and then multiculturalism.

At the same time as Australian society was then having to re-address issues of race and identity, as the Australian High Court’s ‘Mabo’ judgement found that English common law recognised aboriginal verbal land title (‘native title’), the children of Italian, Greek and Vietnamese migrants began to write books about the best and worst of growing up as a ‘wog’ or a ‘slope’ in a society almost constitutionally unable to regard itself as anything other than ‘happy-go-lucky’.

Conservative prime minister John Howard’s solution was to play on the notion that non-indigenous Australians had become riddled with guilt about their past, and should feel more ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about themselves. When he was thrown out in 2007 for trying to meddle with the country’s extensive state-run arbitration and wage-fixing system, the culture wars were not so much fought to a stalemate, as declared a game abandoned.

But Australian self-conception is still largely unresolved, largely because no one self-conception is possible in a country that stretches from a fairly raw and frontierish outback, to European-style cities like Melbourne. The Howard government’s late, and fairly cynical, decision to declare a ‘national emergency’ over the alleged mass child sex abuse in aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, and send in the Australian military, had renewed the question, but the issue was kicked into touch by a most unlikely event: mass protest by Indian students following a series of beatings.

No more ‘curry-bashing’

Over the past decade, Melbourne, a former manufacturing town, had turned itself into a global education entrepreneur, catering to both India and south-east Asian countries. By some measures, education sales were the city’s largest export – much of it a surreptitious sale of permanent residency visas, with the figleaf of a course in ‘catering’ or ‘hotel administration’. Overwhelmingly, Indian students live in Melbourne’s western suburbs, a working-class area badly hit by the decline of manufacturing. Though most Indian students were living on pot noodles and driving taxis, they represented a global class going places, which the ‘Westies’ decidedly weren’t. What became known as ‘curry-bashing’ – a mugging where an Indian student was chosen in preference – were seen by many as evening-up the score.

The Indian students were reasonably patient, but when, after a preliminary police report said there was no ‘racial dimension’ to the bashings, they erupted in a controlled and focused fashion. Confounding many Australians who believed them to be jolly waiters with sing-song voices, they occupied the central intersection of Melbourne, outside its main railway station, forcing the police to carry them off. Subsequent protests were followed by the establishment of civil-defence patrols of the Western suburbs railway stations, which earned them the gratitude of many people who found the places increasingly menacing.

Within weeks the police and Victorian state government had given in, and started to police the areas properly, while thinking more flexibly about the spectrum of racial and opportunistic crime. Though conservative columnists had assured Australians that Indians were ‘naturally passive’, the students had walked all over the gormless Victorian authorities. Like a perfectly played innings, it was a joy to watch.

But it would be false to deny that the Victorian government’s hasty response was not at least in part driven by the hysterical response of the Indian media, which portrayed Melbourne as a sort of Mogadishu with kookaburras. Playing on the fact that the city was so relatively peaceful that an assault could still make the front pages, the Indian media played up a rather self-pitying form of post-colonial victimology.

This coverage was then kicked back into the Australian media, which managed to make it worse. The question of whether Indian students were being treated with disdain and brutality was displaced by the question as to whether accusations of racism would affect our world-standard education industry. It was not that the actual existence of racism was being asserted or denied – it was that the importance of the answer was being endlessly assessed in terms of more abstract questions generated by the market and the media.

For right-wing pundits, still smarting from the rejection of the populist desperation of John Howard, the ‘is Australia racist?’ argument was a chance to re-polarise the debate. More complex discussion of the nature of a multi-layered society was lost amid a hysterical white-identity politics: Where we good? Where we bad? It was all about us. What else could it possibly be about?

A society in flux

This melange of tremulous identity politics, global market dependency, and badly processed historical memory sets the country up for a fresh round of introspection every time someone screws up à la the ‘Jackson Jive’. Those who expected the contestants to turn out to be a bunch of meatheads were surprised to find that they were a multiracial bunch of professionals, including a trainee plastic surgeon. The idea that this was precisely the sort of global group who would be blind to the significance of blacking-up was lost to the debate.

The fact that the show aired was as much due to the hollowing out of once-powerful institutions as anything else. The Nine network that broadcast the show used to be the powerhouse of Australian live TV production. Hitherto, its executives and producers would have known to a waxed whisker what they could and couldn’t get away with. Now the network is a downsized remnant of past glories, its former owners having diversified into casinos. A mere aerial, with a video-player attached, the network had no historical memory to bring to bear on what mass popular mainstream television had once been.

Simultaneously, the national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was broadcasting promos for a new series called John Safran’s Race Relations in which a local iconoclast had tested global identity politics with various predictably unpredictable stunts, such as addressing the congregation of a black southern church wearing a black face to show… well I’m not sure what. It is safe to say, however, that the ABC is anticipating a challenging period explaining the difference between good, progressive black face and bad, populist black face. This will then confuse right-wing populists because their usual tactic – attacking the ABC as a nihilist tool of the elites – will involve criticising the same sort of things they will be defending on commercial TV, such as the ‘Jackson Jive’, as misguided but harmless fun.

The upshot is that the deeply embarrassing ‘Jackson Jive’ act sprang not, as Harry Connick Jnr implied, from a deeply innocent society that had never heard of the civil rights movement, but from one whose values and standards are in such flux that obvious stupidities do not present themselves as such. Network television, and shows like Hey Hey It’s Saturday that grew out if it, no longer fit the new social order. Real encounters at the frontline of globalisation – the Indian student running home, hoping he won’t be thumped by an angry Goth – were blended seamlessly with the froth of TV. Both sides of the ‘is Australia racist?’ debate pleaded innocence, interpreted either as purity of heart or naivete of self-conception. But, hell, it gave the Guardian staff a thrill, and made Harry Connick Jr feel good, and neither have much to shout about these days.

Guy Rundle is a former editor of Arena (Australia). He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Previously on spiked

Guy Rundle reviewed Jindabyne. After the Strictly Come Dancing race row, Tim Black said ‘anti-racism’ is now an insidious form of censorship. Brendan O’Neill wrote about Jade Goody and the tyranny of anti-racism and discussed the Big Brother ‘nigger’ row. Adrian Hart argued that official anti-racism is bad for black children. Mick Hume looked at the ever-expanding category of racial victimhood. Or read more at spiked issues Race and Australia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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