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some thoughts on blackface, racism and (maybe) cultural appropriation

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Al Jolson

I’ve been only half-listening to the apparent furore about some politician having worn ‘blackface’ decades ago to a fancy-dress party (I may not even have those facts straight) and I’ve been struck by the absoluteness of pundits’ condemnation of this behaviour as deeply offensive. So heads must roll.

This is apparently about ‘race’, and black-white relations, but it has occurred to me, or rather it occurred to me over 40 years ago, that there are no ‘white’ people, and no ‘black’ people. This was a matter of very basic observation – every human on Earth (even albinos) is a shade of brown. Later, certainly by the early eighties, I had another, deeper concern. Is there such a thing as race? This wasn’t a thought driven so much by observation, but by my reading at the time. And the person who switched me on to this fascinating question, more than anyone else, was the great 20th century anthropologist and public intellectual Ashley Montagu.

In around 1983-1984 I was sharing house, as I’d been doing for years, and engaging in high-octane mostly pseudo-intellectual argy-bargy with mostly reluctant co-tenants on any subject worth mentioning. During one of these sessions I tossed out the line that ‘there’s no such thing as race’. An eruption of mockery and disdain followed, so over the the next few days or more I betook myself to Adelaide University’s Barr-Smith library, a favourite haunt in those days, and did what research I could. I ended up writing several foolscap pages in my tiny script – pre-computer days – ‘proving’ my ‘race is a myth’ thesis, which I handed to my opponent. He refused to read it, unsurprisingly.

Those old pages are either lost or hidden among the piles of pre-computer writing mouldering about my house, so now I’m going to think about the topic afresh. One question that interests me is this – if races don’t exist, can racism be said to exist? Obviously there is discrimination of people based on their skin colour, their religion and their ‘ethnicity’ – another concept that needs examination – but should we use terms other than ‘racism’ to describe this?

If there is such a thing as race, then we should be able to determine what the different races are, and how many, but we certainly know that all humans are able to breed with all other humans of the opposite sex, regardless of which race they might belong to. So race, supposing it to be a concept describing something existent in the world, is unlikely to be anything pure or stable. Jefferson Fish, author of ‘The Myth of Race’, distinguishes between social and biological race. Social race just fits with the popular conception. Africans don’t look like Europeans (and their differences in looks can be vaguely described), and so they belong to different races in this respect. Chinese/Japanese/Koreans all belong to another race (because we Europeans can’t tell them apart), Melanesians another, Indians/Pakistanis another, and so on – but don’t examine this too deeply or it will all fall apart. Biological race, on the other hand, doesn’t exist, according to Fish, and many others. Craig Venter baldly stated in 2000, at the completion of the human genome project, “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” The genome was deliberately assembled from a number of human subjects who self-identified as members of different races.

I don’t think we need go further into the science of this here. Racism exists because some people believe, for whatever reasons, that ‘white’ people are superior to ‘black’ people, that Asians are superior/inferior to Europeans, etc etc. Sometimes the discrimination is called something else – Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Indophobia, Francophobia, whatever. But sometimes ‘racism’ is used for something a little different from ‘race hatred’. It’s used for having insufficient sensitivity or respect for someone of another ‘race’. Or, I suppose, for someone who is ‘different’. And that’s where ‘blackface’ comes in, apparently.

The idea is that if you blacken your face to represent a ‘black person’, or a person with (considerably?) darker skin than yourself, whatever your intention, you are insulting/mocking that person and the ‘race’ s/he belongs to.

When I think of ‘blackface’ I think of The Black and White Minstrel Show of my youth, and Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’. People nowadays don’t condemn these examples, they largely excuse them as naive, aspects of an age of innocence. The same people nowadays say that blackface is verboten because it returns us to a history of dressing up as black people to represent barbarity, violence and general lack of civilisation.

Really?

I will use an Australian essay by Marion Gray for The Conversation as a typical example of the argument that if you dress up like someone of another culture/race etc you might offend, so you shouldn’t do it, though you might just be excused on the basis of naïveté. The essay is titled ‘Explainer: why blackface (and brownface) offend.‘ So there are poor benighted people out there who need to have it ‘explained’ to them that dressing up as someone you admire (but whose shade of brown skin is a long way from your own) by changing your skin colour to look more like them – well, that’s a complete no-no. It’s okay (perhaps) to dress up like them (watch out for cultural appropriation), but changing skin colour – even though it’s the most obvious way to look like your hero/ine – just can’t be done, because people used to do this for completely different purposes in the past. Here’s how Gray puts it re US history.

In 19th century America, white performers would put dark paint on their faces and perform ridiculous stereotypes about African Americans in Minstrel shows. As Norm Sheehan has written, blackface began as a popular movement that ridiculed and lampooned African Americans leading up to the American Civil War. It continued until the 1970s.

This passage strikes me as overly simplistic, to put it mildly. It may well be that some nineteenth century blackface was meant to mock ‘black’ people, just as whiteface was used by dark-skinned people to mock ‘whites’, but it’s surely also true that motives and intentions were mixed – and undoubtedly much more so in the 20th century. 

Let’s go further back to the case of Shakespeare’s Moor of Venice, whose skin colour is never specified but was often assumed to be – well, dark. We don’t know if the earliest actors wore blackface for Othello (in England), but it’s certain that anyone of dark skin (a ‘savage’ in those days) would be prohibited from acting, just as women were. And it’s absurd to suppose that a blackface actor would be mocking the Moor, a serious and tragic figure, just as it would be absurd to suppose that the male actors playing women were somehow mocking Shakespeare’s multivarious and complex female characters. As we know, in the twentieth century famous ‘black’ and ‘white’ actors have played Othello on screen, with the utmost seriousness, though in the past half-century the role has rightly been seen as a perfect vehicle for ‘black’ actors, given the lack of substantive roles for them in plays from earlier times. 

My main point here is that intention should be everything, as it is in law. Take, for example, the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show, which ran from 1958 to 1978. It’s described by just about everyone writing in the late 20th century and the 21st as overtly racist, but I would describe it instead as an increasingly ham-fisted attempt to suggest that ‘black’ and ‘white’ people might get along through singalong. Born at a time when racial discrimination was beginning to be raised as a serious issue in Britain, as immigrants were beginning to arrive from the colonies, it harked back to old days of Jolson-style music hall in an increasingly faux-innocent way, but it was never, I think, intended to mock or insult people of non-anglosaxon colours. That’s the issue for me. Racism is about disparaging people due either to the colour of their skin – which is an obviously trivial category – or to other features of ‘social race’, as mentioned above, and this might be the clothes they wear, the language they speak, the food they eat, the customs they keep or any form of identifiable ‘otherness’. So it’s really about discrimination, not race. 

It’s hard not to bring up the issue of identity politics here, and it’s easy for me, as white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, more or less déclassé, and boring in so many other ways, to be dismissive of those who identify as different and in some sense oppressed, but I do take my humanism seriously and try to take people as I find them. As a bit of a loner, I don’t personally know a lot of oppressed people, or privileged people, or people for that matter, so I can’t always tell whether people are generally aggrieved and offended or just getting on their high horse for politically opportunistic reasons.  We do seem sometimes to take our ‘offence’ to absurd extremes. No Cowboys and and Indians nowadays, and that’s fine, but was it ever mockery? Stereotyping, yes, but that’s what kids do. First they stereotype, then over time and brain development they learn about nuance and complexity. Dress-ups too, is a time for play, for a bit of silliness, and that means stereotyping, dressing as a ‘typical’ sailor, or nun, or pirate, or geisha or whatever. 

And here’s one final example. Imagine you’re invited to a fancy-dress party, and you’re asked to go as one of your historical idols. You happen to be ‘white’ but your chosen idol happens to be ‘black’. Maybe it’s Michael Jackson, or Mohammed Ali, or Martin Luther King. So you start to dress up, but realise nobody’s going to guess who you are unless, shock horror, you darken your skin. So you’re applying ye old boot polish when your girlfriend arrives and asks what you’re doing. When you explain, she looks shocked and horrified, ‘oh no, you can’t do that!’ (or maybe ‘oh dear, what can I do, baby’s in black and I’m feeling blue, tell me oh, what can I do?’). So you’re reduced to going to the party in your birthday ‘white’ (but with Mohammed Ali’s boxing gloves and poetic patter) and when you tell people who you’re dressed up as, you might well get the response ‘so you think Ali was/ should’ve been a white man, eh? Well how’d you like them uppercuts?’

It’s all a bit of a mindfield. Some say that wearing ‘blackface’ can be forgiven if people don’t know their history, for then they’re condemned to repeat it. I respectfully disagree. You can dress up to look like someone else, including lightening or darkening your skin, while knowing all the history you need to know. You’re not repeating history if your intentions are more or less completely the opposite of those of the past. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 16, 2019 at 3:23 pm