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Lost in translation - Joel Hall

Every few years, an incident comes along that serves as a reminder of how much more introspection needs to take place around the world in regard to racial sensitivity.

A stunt that aired last week during a reunion episode of the Australian variety show, "Hey Hey It's Saturday," was a perfect example. During a routine performed on the show 20 years earlier, six Australian doctors performed as "The Jackson Jive" in what was billed as a tribute to Michael Jackson. The front man of the group painted his face powder white to represent Michael Jackson, while the doctors in the background all painted their faces the color of charcoal.

Harry Connick, Jr., who was serving as a celebrity guest judge, was horrified by the unabashed blackface performance, and even more shocked that he seemed to be the only judge who had an unfavorable opinion of the skit. While I'm sure black people and black images make their way to Australia just as they do anywhere else, the episode was explained away by the show's producers as a cultural misunderstanding.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, blackface was an accepted form of entertainment that made a mockery of African features and contributed to the perception of black people as lazy, shiftless, highly superstitious, and dumb. Out of blackface vaudeville shows of the 1800s, grew the stereotypical black caricatures that, in some ways, still haunt movies and media today, such as the "sambo," the "picaninny," and the "black brute."

That history seems largely forgotten and blackface resurfaces at college parties, social gatherings, and anywhere people may profit socially from a cheap laugh. During my senior year of college, there was a Halloween party in the student center. Of the many people in costume, two students came as 1980s-era break dancers, wearing blue Adidas sweat suits, matching shoes, and large, fake afro wigs. However, the faces of the two dancers, both Caucasian, were covered in jet-black face paint.

I wrote an article about it in the college newspaper, after seeing the two people walk into the party and witnessing the uproar as the two men were forced to remove their makeup by a small mob. The article created quite a stir, especially after reports surfaced that the two break dancers were exchange students from Israel.

At the time, there were some students who defended the two by arguing that blackface is not something native to that culture, so the people doing it obviously meant no harm. The same basic argument has been used by some to defend the most recent incident in Australia.

While Australia and Israel may not share America's history of slavery, blackface, and minstrel shows, they, too, have had to come to terms with the way they treat people of different races. Australia's history is dotted with many racial mockeries of the Aboriginal people through print and song. Israel and the Arab nations surrounding Israel have, at times, used their television programs and newspapers to attack each other, using racial and religious caricatures. In those cultures, the people living there have had to become sensitive to the images that are familiar to them, in order to be considered racially tolerant.

People of African descent, or any other descent for that matter, should be extended the same sensitivity. When you dress up as someone in a way that makes a mockery of their God-given racial features, and, then, presume what they may say or do, that's not funny. That's racism. The subject of the mockery being black is really insignificant, because it doesn't change the fact that the joke is at the expense of an entire race of people.

My hope for the future is that understanding will not get lost in translation as it has so many times before.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.