Updated: Dec 10, 2019
A few days after I launched this blog, a good friend of mine sent me this short documentary from the Youtube channel Stupéfiant ! on blackface in France. The documentary talks about the controversy that sprung when football player Antoine Griezmann dressed up as an African-American basketball player. The film, named “Qu’est-ce que le blackface ? - Stupéfiant !”, was posted in January 2018. Yes, in 2018. Because apparently in France, people still don’t know what blackface is. Ha. Anyway.
I watched the documentary, and my first reaction to it wasn’t very nice nor constructive for sure. I thought the journalists were not being very objective and incredibly bias in their approach. But then I had to admit to myself, at least they’re talking about blackface. It’s already better than some people in Europe, who yell at anyone that tries to explain that dressing up as an "African" is racist and not an attack against their traditions and cultural practices. Because yes, it is. Have you ever seen many people dressed up as “Europeans”? Or even as “Americans”? Probably not. However, dressing up as an “African” or as an “Asian” is common practice. Worse, it's considered funny, as if it was just another costume.
Guess what? It isn’t.
For the readers that might not understand French and that are not familiar with the concept of blackface (I guess), here is a little recap. Blackface was - and still sometimes is - a type of theatrical make-up used by a white person to stage and often make fun of a black person. This American practice started in theatres in the nineteenth century and spread to television in the twentieth century. The idea was to portray black people in a funny, even ridiculous way. It has to be said that back then, a black person was not allowed to perform in front of a white audience, even less so on television. The white actors would thus paint their faces black, together with exaggeratedly big red lips, to portray a black person. The characters were most of the time portrayed as a bit stupid, lazy and incapable of doing something useful, and that’s the whole problem. First off because at that time in the United States, people of colours were separated from white people and were denied their most basic rights, but also because it helped spread racist ideas that black people were lazy and dumb.
What’s my opinion on blackface? I have to stress that it is only my opinion and I respect the fact that other people might not agree with me. I have mixed feelings about it. I was not born in the United States and I haven’t been exposed to black caricatures that were shown back then. I think that my opinion is thus not really representative of what African-American feel. That’s a good thing, because that’s not the point of this blog. What interests me is what’s happening right here in Europe.
Blackface does make me uncomfortable. I perfectly remember going to Maastricht, the Netherlands in 2017 to show the little town to my partner. We got unlucky because it was the same day as Carnival, and all the shops were closed. We didn’t stick around for long, but we still bumped into two groups dressed up as Africans. How do I know? Because they had painted their skin in black, put on afro wigs and painted their lips red. It upsetted me. I found it disrespectful to see them walk around in front of me as if being black was a disguise in itself.
In Belgium and in the Netherlands, there is also another notorious controversy around Zwarte Piet, the sidekick of Sint-Nicolaas that punish misbehaved children. This fictional character has dark skin and is often played by a white person that thus uses blackface. There have been many different versions on the origins of this tradition. I heard, for instance, that Zwarte Piet had dark skin because he works as a miner. Ha ha. I checked out of curiosity and this version is pretty recent. It was actually created out of the controversy. In the original version, Zwarte Piet is a Moor from Spain, so indeed a person of colour.
On the other side, sometimes I struggle to understand the controversy of specific cases. In the documentary for instance, the producers decided to interview an artist that paints his models’ skin in a variety of colours. This specific case does not shock me whatsoever, because I feel like the intention is not to mock or even dress up as a person of colour. This is however a very personal opinion and I know everyone might not agree.
My opinion is yet again different concerning disguises. I do not think it is shocking if someone wants to dress up as a person they admire, would it be fictional or not. The example that always comes to my mind is myself when I was a kid. I remember that my mom had bought me two princess disguises, Belle and Snow White (thinking back, I wonder if my mom didn’t have a secret motive for dressing me up as Snow White… She must have found it pretty funny). The difference is that when I dressed up as Snow White, I never thought about painting my face white. I do not think anyone would have said anything to Antoine Griezmann if he had worn the same disguise, but without the blackface.
What bothers me, to sum up, is not to dress up in a character, fictional or not, that is not of the same skin colour as yourself. The issue arises when people assume that dressing up as a person of colour (would this person be of African-descent or Asian-descent or indigenous) is a disguise in itself. However, I believe that the integrity of people of foreign-descent should be respected regardless of our own values. Respecting each other is being able to say “I might not understand how big of a problem this is, but I can watch myself and avoid to hurt you”.
But what do I know?