Thursday, September 19, 2019

Deep breath: dressing up as a black character is not the same as minstrelsy

Here I go, risking my neck again. I know this is something I have written on several times now, but it keeps raising its hoary head and, at the risk of being branded racist, I do believe it is important and something that the political correctness movement, so necessary in so many other respects, may have got wrong, or at least got out of perspective.
Justin Trudeau is the latest to be pilloried for wearing what the press is calling "blackface", or sometimes "brownface", when someone managed to unearth a photo of him from eighteen years ago at a school pageant dressed up as a black character from Arabian Nights, complete with turban and black make-up. The press is having a field day, and opposition politicians are predictably playing it up for all they are worth. Trudeau himself immediately abased himself and apologized profusely for this youthful indiscretion (the photo dates from more than a decade before he even thought of going into politics), because that's just what you have to do for damage limitation in matters of this kind. This comes out just a month before a tight general election. Coincidence? I think not - someone with a grudge has been saving this up for an opportune moment.
Anyway, political considerations aside, this issue of blackface is a perennial one, and in recent years it is the kiss of death for any politician or personality fingered by it (and there have been several, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey being just two in recent months). You may say, and quite rightly too: blackface is a racist holdover from the minstrelsy shows of yesteryear in which white people dressed like caricatures of black people for purposes of entertainment, demeaning, shaming and dehumanizing them in the process.
This is what blackface looks like
Yes, I am familiar with minstrelsy, bizarre concept though it is. How could I not be? Every single article on the subject runs over the long, sordid history of the tradition, in more or less detail. My father used to love the Black and White Minstrel Show in the UK back in the 1960s, because he loved the music and the dancing. I'm pretty sure he never even thought about the fact that these were white people dressed up as black people, and neither did I, truth be told, even though I hated that "old people music" with a vengeance. Frankly, I'm not sure that the minstrel shows I saw ever actually "dehumanized" black people - I'm not entirely sure what that means in this context - but they sure stereotyped and caricatured them, in much the same way as other shows caricatured other individuals and segments of society. Hell, stereotypes and caricatures are what much of comedy is based on, even though I'm more of a subtle wordplay kind of guy myself. Anyway, I digress.
The main problem I have is that there is a difference between somebody dressing up as a stereotyped, even exaggerated, black person to deliberately portray them as a figure of fun, and somebody dressing up as a specific individual from fiction or from real life, often in a spirit of emulation or even adulation. Blackface is a very specific traditional performance genre, which does indeed have racist roots, but which has all but been eradicated today. Using make-up, including black and brown make-up, for other purposes is not the same thing at all. For example, someone dressed as Black Panther for Comicon, someone dressed as Muhammed Ali or Usain Bolt (or Dianna Ross or Rihanna) for a fancy dress ball, or a kid dressed as an indigenous princess (yes, I know, there's no such thing) or Snoop Dogg for Halloween. Or, for that matter, Justin Trudeau dressed as a character from Arabian Nights for a school fundraiser. Call it freedom of expression, call it what you like: what it is not is hate speech (or "hate dressing" if that is even a thing).
Indeed, this is not blackface: this is someone dressed up as someone they're not. People do it all the time, and they are usually not trying to demean or dehumanize anyone. A big part of the problem, I have realized, is the use of the word "blackface" out of context. As soon as the word is used, any conversation or debate is closed down, and battle lines are drawn. We are suddenly talking about a taboo subject. Look what happened to Megyn Kelly when she tried to talk about the subject last Halloween.
I am also aware of, and generally sympathetic to, the difference between intent and effect. Maybe it shouldn't be the case and maybe it should, but the effect on a viewer, their perception of what is occurring, always trumps any intent, well-meaning or otherwise, on the part of the perpetrator. So, then the question arises as to whether these perceptions have not become skewed over time by the political narrative around them.
Now, I am not black, and so am not in any position to make definitive pronouncements on this. But just take a more or less random example from today's paper, a Canadian woman of Malaysian background recounts her first experience of Canadian racism: a couple of white girls were discussing their summer and their tans, and one asked the other, "Am I as dark as her yet?", referring to the Malaysian woman. Racist? I would argue probably not - just a couple of silly girls overly concerned their looks, aspiring to have as "good" a skin colour as the unknown woman. There was no intent to demean or "dehumanize" (yes, I know, intent-effect!). But the Malaysian-Canadian woman clearly sees it as racist (or at least does so now - she doesn't record her reactions at the time). Should she? Is this politicization for the sake of it? Is it a heartfelt personal reaction, or an attitude influenced by the curent political Zeitgeist? I'm not saying I know better than she; I'm just putting an unconfortable question out there.
I don't know how many people of colour are offended by a young Trudeau dressing as a black Arabian Nights character for the entertainment of children. I would be interested to know, but I have not been able to find much analysis on the subject. Interestingly, in some interviews of random Canadians recorded by the BBC, most of the people of colour interviewed say that they don't really care about it, that's it's essentially a non-issue, and the only instance of outright outrage came from a middle class white woman. The reaction in Trudeau's home riding of Papineau seems to be equally sanguine, at least anecdotally, among both black and white respondents, with many expressing the view, contrary to what many press articles are asserting, that cultural sensitivities have indeed evolved over the last 18 years. Georges Laraque, a black ex-NHL player who went to the same school as Trudeau, says he doesn't remember anyone dressing in blackface, even in those days, but would have just laughed along if he had, adding that, in his view, blackface is only racist when it is used to amplify or satirize African-American stereotypes. This sounds like a reasonable line to me, but is it representative of black attitudes (outside of the highly-politicized or media-orientated classes)? I don't know.
If Trudeau had dressed as a woman, would women be offended? If he had dressed as a slightly whiter character from Arabian Nights, would slightly whiter people be offended? Is whiteface (yes, there is such a thing) racist? I don't really know, and we are not likely to find out in the current climate of taboo around the whole subject. But can we at the very least agree to separate out the idea of minstrelsy blackface from the more innocent practice of dressing up?

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