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Is Australia unusually racist?

Nick Bryant | 06:18 UK time, Monday, 12 October 2009

The Channel Nine show Hey Hey It's Saturday was a staple of 1970s Australia. Last week's blackface skit, which has generated so many unfavourable international headlines, also had a distinctly retro and unreconstructed feel. Racist, too, according to the shows many detractors.

For those who missed it, the variety show aired a talent segment in which five men appeared in frizzy black wigs and with their faces daubed in black make-up purporting to be the Jackson Jive. Half-way through the song they were joined by another person impersonating Michael Jackson, whose face was painted white.

The American singer Harry Connick Jr, a guest judge on the show, signalled his immediate offence by scoring the performance "0". Later, he was invited back onto the live broadcast, where the host, Daryl Somers, apologised for causing offence. Connick Jr, who hails from America's Deep South, explained that the skit would have been unacceptable in his homeland. "Black minstrels" have long been a taboo, since they remind people of the Jim Crow era, when the races were separated in the American south from the cradle to the grave.

This controversy has not so much revived the debate about whether Australia is unusually racist as prolonged it. Australia is already in the public stocks over the attacks on Indian students.

The White Australia policy. The condition of indigenous Australians. Pauline Hanson. The Cronulla riots. The opposition to Islamic schools in mainly-white areas. As I've written before, Australia certainly is easy to stereotype as an unusually racist country. There will also be many who think that John Howard's political success partly stemmed from stoking the prejudices of Middle Australia, whether over asylum seekers or his prolonged reticence on the rise of Pauline Hanson.

From the sometimes paranoiac reaction to the arrival of relatively small numbers of boat people on its shores to employment surveys which show that job applicants with Anglo names fare better than Australians with Chinese or Middle Eastern bloodlines, a persuasive case can quickly be assembled.

There's also a counter-argument: that the bigger, more optimistic story about race in post-war Australia is how successfully immigrants from all over the world have successfully been assimilated without any great backlash. Proponents of this point of view would argue that Hansonism was a short-lived phenomenon and that there has been no repeat of Cronulla. Oddly, the doctors who performed the skit on Hey Hey It's Saturday are testament to the changing face of modern Australia. It included a Sri Lankan-Australian, an Indian-Australian, a Greek-Australian, an Irish-Italian-Australian and a Lebanese-Australian.

Earlier in the year, at the height of the Indian student controversy, the Melbourne-based academic Waleed Aly, wrote this piece in The Monthly, which offers a very balanced and carefully modulated assessment. And though he misrepresents BBC World's coverage of the 2007 federal election, we will forgive him that transgression. He is emerging as one of the country's most eloquent public intellectuals.

Elsewhere, Waleed Aly has said that Australia has "a fairly high level of low-level racism," which seems to me, at least, a very neat summation.

For what it's worth, Australian politicians often appear to have a more pessimistic assessment of the level of racism in their own society, and do little to counter it. Kevin Rudd is normally quick to comment on the water cooler issue of the day, and often adopts a populist stance. His condemnation of the photographer, Bill Henson, for using semi-naked adolescent models, was an obvious case in point. But he has not weighed in on the "blackface" row.

Julia Gillard had this to say during a visit to America. "Obviously, I think whatever happened was meant to be humorous and would be taken in that spirit by most Australians," comments which seemed to misunderstand American racial sensibilities on the subject and to have been intended more for domestic Australian consumption.

Perhaps Kevin Rudd does not want to get on the wrong side of public opinion on the issue. Or perhaps he agrees with those who stereotype Australia: that a racist undercurrent still flows fairly deep.

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