Even When No One Calls You A Racist...

It's good to pretend that they did:

Online posters have called Harry Connick, Jr. "just another uptight American with no sense of humor." And Connick himself appeared on "Mad TV" in 1996 as a bouffanted, suspiciously tan southern preacher, prompting accusations of hypocrisy.

In a poll on PerthNow.com.au, 81 percent of respondents said the sketch was not racist, with other newspapers clocking in with similar percentages. Punch deputy editor Tory Maguire glumly asserted that "The 2.5 million Australians who were watching were looking for nostalgia, so a returning act like the Jackson Jive was always going to appeal to them." It's a sentiment echoed by the show's host, Daryl Somers, who told reporters that Australian audiences "see the lightness of it." 

Dr. Anand Deva, who appeared as Michael in the sketch, told an Australian radio station this week, "This was really not intended ... [to be] anything to do with racism at all. I am an Indian, and five of the six of us are from multicultural backgrounds and to be called a racist ... I don't think I have ever been called that ever in my life before.'' While the crux of Deva's argument - that someone who isn't white can't be racist -- may strike many as astonishingly naïve, the dustup does raise interesting questions about what's offensive -- and to whom.

There's a lot going on here.

1.) The confusing charge of hypocrisy--Harry Connick evidently can't criticize blackface, because he once imitated of a Southern preacher. This is like saying I can't criticize Snoop's misogyny, because I once dressed in drag.

2.) Apparently, some people think the preacher is black (see here) I don't, but even if I did, the logic still doesn't follow. Connick's critique was of blackface, not of imitating black people. No one is demanding that Darrell Hammond stop imitating Jesse Jackson. (Except, maybe, Jesse.)

3.) It's amazing, but not surprising, to see how quickly this went to "Are you a racist?" Connick Jr. gave a really level-headed, calm, but critical, perspective on the skit. To which the response is, "How dare you call me a racist!"

I don't think this is merely cultural, thought that plays a part. I think this about finding a way to make yourself right. The easiest way to do that is to change the subject. Again, it's really, really hard to say, "You know what, My bad." Or even, "Yo know what? I thought it was funny. I didn't realize Americans  found this offensive. I'm sorry. I really didn't mean it that way."

Again, I go back to Berlusconi. Warned about calling Obama "tanned," he doesn't say, "My fault," he doubles down and calls the dude's wife tanned too. It's embarrassing. For them. Not us. And I think, in their private hours, they know it.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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