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Analysis: 'Blackface Jacksons' embarrassing to Australia

  • Story Highlights
  • Australian has a history of wrapping racism in supposed humor
  • Racial humor for a long time reflected official government policy
  • Harry Connick Jr. right to slam 'blackface Jacksons' act on Australian TV
  • To those Australians who still find such offensive skits funny: "The Joke is on you!"
By Stan Grant
CNN
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Stan Grant is CNN's United Arab Emirates correspondent based in Abu Dhabi. A native of Australia, Grant wrote a book on his family's Aboriginal history and identity titled "The Tears of Strangers." The article contains some language that some may find offensive.

(CNN) -- That Australia is once again defending itself against claims of racism is not surprising.

Harry Connick Jr. gave the comedy skit a zero mark.

Harry Connick Jr. gave the comedy skit a zero mark.

That the cause of the furor is a childish, inappropriate racial 'joke' is even less of a surprise. Australian popular culture has a long held an often embarrassing tradition of wrapping racism in supposed humor.

Movie star and singer Harry Connick Jr. condemned on air an Australian television skit featuring a group of performers who wore blackface to impersonate the late pop star Michael Jackson and his brothers.

Connick was a judge on the Australian variety show "Hey Hey It's Saturday," when the blackface group "Jackson Jive" performed "Can You Feel It" wearing huge black wigs, blackface and one spangled glove each. The Michael Jackson impersonator wore whiteface.

In the 1950s a popular song lampooned a 'misfit' Aborigine whose 'boomerang won't come back.' Popular entertainer Rolf Harris was even less sensitive in a verse of his song "Tie me kangaroo down sport" proclaiming that on his death one of his friends could free his captive Aborigines: "Let my Abos go loose, they're of no further use, so let my Abos go loose."

A famous Australian illustrator known as Joliffe made his fame and fortune in a long-running cartoon depicting Aborigines as dim-witted, thick browed, naked, creatures from the stone age.

It is not just indigenous Australians who have borne the brunt of these so-called jokes. Video Watch Connick's reaction to the 'blackface Jacksons' »

After World War II a new wave of immigrants arrived from southern Europe. Australians unused to such foreigners with odd sounding languages and strange smelling food quickly labeled the new comers 'wogs.'

In the 1960s a popular film "They're A Weird Mob" mocked one of these immigrants for his poor English and strange customs. He finally wins approval by marrying his boss' daughter, a good Anglo Aussie, learning to swear and drink copious beers.

There are just a few quick examples -- there are many, many others -- of how Australians use mockery and humor to disguise their discomfort with so-called 'outsiders.'

The use of humor for a long time reflected official government policy that also scorned foreigners and Aborigines.

Australian settlement in the 18th century was rooted in racism. Indigenous Australians were deemed not even to exist.

British law proclaimed the continent Terra Nullius or empty land, extinguishing in an instant tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal occupation and ownership.

Aborigines were dispossessed, often violently, and basic human freedoms, and rights to equal education, employment and welfare benefits denied.

It was not until 1967 -- almost 200 years after European settlement -- that the law was changed to officially count Aborigines in the census as human beings and no longer included amongst the flora and fauna!

For most of the last century Australia pursued a 'White Australia Policy.' It was designed to limit immigration only to those of white skin.

In the first half of the century nearly 80 percent of all immigrants came from the United Kingdom.

Despite being geographically in Asia, Australians generally viewed Asian people with suspicion dubbing them the 'yellow peril.'

In the words of one of the prime ministers of the time Harold Holt "Australia must be kept preponderantly British in its institutions and compositions of its people."

Immigrants, Holt conceded, "offered much" and in return they must simply "become Australian." For many that too often meant being forced to laugh along with jokes at their own expense.

Times though, thankfully, have changed. The 'White Australia Policy' has long been consigned to history. Aborigines have struggled for and won a measure of equality of law and opportunity. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last year apologized to Indigenous Australians for past mistreatment and injustice.

Humor too has changed. A new generation of Australian comics from China, Vietnam, Italy, Greece and Lebanon have turned the tables; laughing at themselves and 'Anglo Aussies.'

Comedian Joe Dolce scored a worldwide hit with his song 'Shaddap-a-your-face' a ditty spoofing his Italian broken English. A Greek-Australian comedy group filled theatres throughout the country with its play 'Wogs Out of Work.'

Humor can be a great leveler. One of Australia's prouder traditions is egalitarianism, a nation where princes and paupers can on a simple human level meet each other as equals.

Humor, in the right spirit pricks our pomposity, makes a virtue of our differences and reveals our common humanity.

The ham-fisted 'Jackson Jive' routine achieved none of that. Appearing in blackface belongs in Australia's own dark past, back there, with the 'White Australia Policy', silly songs about Aborigines and Joliffe cartoons.

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Connick was right to give the comedy skit a zero.

Connick's homeland America, is itself not free of racial issues, but in this case it took an American to tell those Australians who still find such offensive skits funny: "The Joke is on you!"

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