Today I want to talk about blackface. Not because I consider myself an expert on that topic, but because I recently went to the Black and White Carnival in Pasto, and asked myself if a cultural event where people paint their faces black (and white) is racist or not.
Let’s go back a little bit though. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept of blackface, this is a short Google definition for you:
Unlike in the US where most people have a pretty good idea what blackface is all about, and where it is also pretty clear (in most cases) that it’s not cool for a white person to run around wearing blackface, in other parts of the world, many people are not very familiar with the history of blackface. Some really don’t realize how offensive and racist it can be. There are mainly three reasons why people still use blackface.
1. People are ignorant
In many places people are not really aware of the concept of blackface. So for them, painting your face black to resemble a black person might not seem offensive.
In Germany for example, a theater company in Berlin decided to enact a play, I’m not Rappaport, employing blackface. One of the characters in the play is black, but instead of casting one of the many African-German actors that work in Berlin, the crew decided to use blackface.
Usually, you would assume that actors in particular, or artists in general, are more liberal and tolerant than your average Joe. However, when asked to explain WHY blackface was used (after a pretty big outrage among the African-German population), they simply said: “We didn’t see how there was anything wrong with that. That’s how the play has always been enacted.”
Given that Germany’s colonial history has been somewhat obscured, to put it mildly (we never learn about the atrocities during German colonialism … I can’t even remember learning anything about former German colonies AT ALL at school), and given that black people in Germany are somewhat, from a historic perspective, new to Germany – I can give some people the benefit of the doubt, if they say they didn’t know anything about blackface or didn’t know that putting it on would be racist.
I remember how I myself ran around with blackface when I was maybe 8 years old, during the holiday of the Three Wise Magis. On this day, children dressed as the three kings from the Orient to go from house to house to bless each (Catholic) house for the new year. While this is a beautiful tradition, it is still very common to paint one of the three kings with blackface. In my group of the three kings it ended up being me. Clearly, at that age, I had never heard of blackface before, nor seen a black person face to face, and mainly volunteered to be that king because I thought it was cool to get my face painted. However, nobody ever thought to mention or point out that there is no reason for any of us to go around in blackface to represent the third king. I am convinced that even today, most people just don’t realize what it is they’re doing, and don’t do it because they mean any harm.
I do believe though, that it is about time that somebody DOES speak up. Not only the African-German community, but people with common sense. At a certain point, especially in such a global society, with easy access to information, you just can’t hide behind ignorance any more. If you want to use blackface, JUST LOOK UP what it’s all about! (Disclaimer: As I was looking on Flickr to find a picture of this, I actually couldn’t find a single picture of the three kings with blackface, so maybe something IS changing.)
So yes, I do believe some people when they say, they didn’t know any better (I didn’t either when I was 8 years old), but I don’t think you should CONTINUE or even defend yourself for using blackface, if people from your own community tell you it offends them.
2. It’s a tradition
Besides being ignorant, in many countries using blackface is part of one tradition or another. One example for this is the Sinterklaas tradition in the Netherlands. Basically, Sinterklaas (the original version of Santa Claus) comes to bring presents to children early in December. There are different versions of this holiday in several European countries. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas has a helper – a “moor”, called the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
A few years ago I was in the Netherlands around Christmas time and we started noticing all these exaggerated moore figures everywhere. Highly reminiscent of early colonial drawings of Africans, these Sinterklaas “moors” don’t look like any black person I’ve ever met, but like a pure caricature. As Germans in the 30s started drawing Jews with very exaggerated features to a) make them look less human and b) emphasize the “evilness” of the Jews, I felt that something very similar was happening here.
While the original image of the moore does come from the colonial period of the Netherlands, nowadays, give or take 200 years later, one would think, that the Dutch (with a decently large African-Dutch population) have realized that black people don’t really look like that, that this image of black people is offensive, and that having white Dutch people parading around in blackface for the holiday is purely racist. In fact, it has been pointed out by the Africa-Dutch community in the Netherlands, there has even been a European Court of Human Rights ruling on it that acknowledges how unacceptable this tradition is.
Yet, many Dutch people still want to hang on to this … yes, tradition. “Why should we change our tradition? It is not offensive, we are not racist. We are just being true to our customs.” I am sorry, but at this point, this is not ignorance any more, but just bullshit. What if Germans suddenly decided to start killing Jews again, because our ancestors did, or French people went back to hating Germans because their forefathers did? Right, it would be ridiculous, stupid, and more than anything show that people haven’t learned anything from the past. The same goes for the Sinterklaas “tradition”. Sure, back in the day, people had very stupid ideas about Africans and the human race in general. So does this mean that we should just go ahead and honor this by sticking to a racist tradition? Clearly, people who think that way are not traditional, they are racist, and very consciously so. Which brings me to the most obvious reason why people use blackface …
3. People are racist
In Colombia one of the most popular comedians is Roberto Lozano who plays a character called Soldado Micolta. While Lozano, by Colombian standards, is considered white, he decided to portray an African-Colombian soldier, the Soldado Micolta. Not only does he do so by putting on blackface, his character conveys every prejudice in the book about African-Colombians: Micolta is lazy, stupid, and he cannot speak proper Spanish.
This program has been a huge success, and only after massive protests against the act, has the TV station Caracol agreed to stop using blackface (Soldado Micolta is still going to be a stupid, lazy and illiterate African-Colombian though).
What struck me about this particular use of blackface was mostly the reaction of the majority of the Colombians to the protests against the show. They failed to understand why anybody would feel offended by this character. “It is just comedy. If the African-Colombians can’t laugh at this, they just need to get a sense of humor.” Mosty African-Colombians I have met do have a sense of humor (like most people do), but they also have a sense about having been ridiculed and portrayed in only negative ways for centuries. Still, to many white Colombians the protests seem exaggerated.
On the other hand, the whole (white) nation was outraged when a Chilean reporter decided to make fun of the national soccer team.
I don’t want to get into details about this, but even humor stops somewhere. If this same comedian made fun of white soldiers, politicians, women, men, soccer players, raggaetoneros alike, mayyyybe we could argue about the boundaries of comedy. But he isn’t. He exclusively makes fun of black Colombians, without being one, without knowing any of them, without thinking about the consequences of his actions.
The fact that many Colombians fail to see how this repeated negative stereotyping of African-Colombians contributes even more to their marginalization and discrimination, is already outrageous. However, there is even something more upsetting happening. BLACK Colombians start to think that this program is funny, because … well… because that’s how African-Colombians are after all. When it gets to this point, that negative stereotypes become part of somebody’s OWN identity, no matter how you feel about freedom of expression, you have crossed a line. You’re not being ignorant or not even sticking to any traditions, you are just racist.
So what about the Black and White carnival?
I wasn’t quite sure how to go into this carnival, knowing that people run around wearing blackface. Would it be racist and offensive? Would they defend it as their tradition? Turns out, it wasn’t any of that. I would argue that this Black and White Carnival is pretty much the opposite of blackface, showing tolerance, fun and colorfulness.
First off, few people go out on the street with their faces painted all black. People might not have any paint on their face at all, just a few black stripes, or completely different colors. No matter what facial paint you start out with though, after five minutes of stepping on to the streets (at the very longest) you’ll get a splash of white foam all over your face. This foam pretty much just dissolves and becomes water that washes away whatever you had painted on your face. Only to be an empty canvas again for other people to paint your face black, white, green, yellow, orange … To me, this is a beautiful image of how colorful our world is, and that we should embrace it. Colors, even if they are on our face, aren’t fixed concepts. They are not who we are (or at least in theory shouldn’t be). The fact that we can just wash off whatever color we had on our face before, to change it, to alter it, to re-interpret it shows how fluid concepts of race and identity can be. All of this wrapped in a joyful celebration of these differences is something I wish the idea of blackface could be replaced with some day …