Is Black Face necessarily racist?

There has been a tradition among some social groups (Morris Men, Mummers, Clog Dancers) to have some or all of its members ‘blacked up’- not as minstrels but with black faces as if dirty.

It is unknown whether this tradition relates to Moors who worked in Cornwall in the 16th century, or to men coming up from the coal pits, or in fact what the origin is at all. None of the behaviour around the blacking up refers to any racial stereotypes.

I find this difficult as Black Face Minstrelsy is almost definitely racist unless done carefully (see Michelle Shocked’s album Arkansas Traveller) but what exactly is the thing that makes changing one’s skin colour racist.

This is a cultural tradition that happens to strongly resemble the largely American practice of blackface. In this internet age, I can see how the blowup happened, but this sort of “hey your culture resembles a bad thing from my culture” occurrence isn’t uncommon. There was also that controversy years ago over imported Pokemon cards that had the manji (swastika) on it, which caused activists to complain to Nintendo until they removed the symbol from the Japanese version of the cards, despite the swastika being a perfectly benign Buddhist/Hindu symbol in the culture where it originated.

This isn’t a person in Missouri blacking up and making up some nonsense to cover himself. And honestly, if these same people were in the US doing the same thing I’d tell them to knock it off, damn their traditions. But given that this is happening in the original community, this is a completely different tradition that happens to have an unfortunate resemblance to a very ugly one. I do note that the article states that it partially stems from “[…] north African pirates who settled in England.” But it seems to be celebrating them, and I’d like to hear what their descendants had to say before I’d be willing to call it racist just because it resembles a bad thing from some completely different cultural context.

The Cornish tradition is that many barbary pirates (moors from North Africa- probably olive skinned but darker than your average anaemic Briton) settled and also took up mining (although tin and gold, so not black faces from coal dust.

Right, but the reason blackface is bad in the US is primarily because minstrel shows were kind of terrible and not exactly fair to black Americans. The Cornish tradition doesn’t seem to have that force behind it. If anything it seems to be celebratory of them, it doesn’t have that baggage of “this was historically used to mock and belittle people”, and is literally an ocean away from the place where that was the case.

Even if both of them are “racelifting” to a degree, I don’t feel like you can equate them because they don’t stem from the same culture of race relations. Again, if this were a community of immigrants in Alabama, it wouldn’t really be okay. At the very least you could make a fair case that the distress it causes outweighs their right to practice their cultural tradition. but I don’t think they can be criticized for doing this in the UK, where the good and bad points of various racial relationships is characteristically different from those in the US.

Racism and racial insensitivity are 2 different things. You’re being racially insensitive if you don’t know or don’t care that what you’re doing is in some way reminiscent of something from history that actually was racist.

But it wouldn’t be right to ask people in India to stop using the swastika because some Austrian jerk with a stupid mustache stole it and was also kind of terrible. Obviously the cultural relationship between Cornwall and the US is a bit more tightly knit than the relationship between India and Germany, but I think the analogy is valid.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The minstrel show might have been invented in the US, but like so much else in our pop culture, it was a very popular export. The Brits loved it so much, that they didn’t stop showing The Black and a White Minstrel Show until 1978. And the live version kept touring until 1987. The minstrel show is pretty well embedded into UK culture, despite not being native to the isle. Also, these complaints aren’t coming from Americans, their coming from inside the UK. It’s not a case (thank God) of idiot Americans judging other cultures without understanding the context. These are British people saying this sort of thing doesn’t belong in their culture anymore.

That being said, it’s clear that the Morris dancers are coming from a wholly independent tradition, and shouldn’t be judged by the more blatantly racist minstrel shows. But it might just be that minstrel shows have just ruined black face for everyone, and should be avoided anyway.

Link didn’t work?

In the Netherlands there is a discussion now about Zwarte Piet. It’s a tradition of blacking up that goes back to the Sufi masters’ “aghlaqueen” in 1000 AD, through Herla King, to Hellequin, to Harlequin of the Commedia. The blackening of the face was constantly adapted to the times. When Zwarte Piet was added to the Sinterklaas tradition he retained many of the characteristics of Harlequin, but the backstory was either that he was a Moorish prince or that he has was sold as a slave when the bishop Nicolas bought his freedom after which they went around doing good deeds together. At that point he came to represent an actual black person again, but not with malicious intent or in any way negatively.

The thing is, none of that is what makes it offensive. Some people are currently interpreting a connection to slavery, seeing Zwarte Piet as a slave of the bishop. This interpretation is new, and it is made up, but so is all the other stuff. It’s all made up, it is all of equal validity. It is only discursively constructed. If someone is hurt by the tradition as it is it can’t hurt to change it yet again.

Something isn’t inherently racist. It doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Meaning is created by context, but context and interpretation is all there is, layered on top of each other. We sometimes like to think that at the bottom there will some kind of solid truth, but that’s an illusion. The discursive construction is all there is.

I think that while whites tend to think of blackface being as being insulting because of the caricatures used back in the minstrel shows the problem isn’t just the past. In today’s white dominated society blacks feel that they are still defined by whites and when whites darken their skin to portray blacks they are contributing to this process. African-Americans resent the lack of control of their own image.

At least that’s what I’ve gathered. I don’t claim any special insight into this. If it isn’t obvious, I’m white.

Link works okay for me.

Ah yes, worked this time.

It does seem like an example of someone thinking that at the bottom of all the layers of narratively constructed meaning lies an immutable historical truth.

That particular etymology of Harlequin is pretty contentions. The pure Germanic Erl King->Herla King-> Herla cyning -> Wotan is just as likely if not more so.

Some previous threads:

Is blackface really offensive?
Blackface - why the hysteria?
Posing as another race: ever acceptable?
Racial stereotypes in Europe (re: Sergio Garcia)

I’m reminded of the recent(ish) brouhaha emanating from the US over an ad for a fried chicken chain here in Australia in which a (white Australian) spectator at a cricket match shared his fried chicken with (black) spectators supporting the West Indies team.

The “Black folk do love themselves some fried chicken!” idea just isn’t a thing in this part of the world and so the ad was seen by the vast majority of people as the members of two opposing sports teams coming together over a popular fast food meal. But no, the offenderati in the US jumped on the “Racist!” bandwagon and after lots of internet tut-tutting and “OMG how racist are those Australians?” the ad was pulled.

I’m not going to pretend Australia has no issues with racism because that’s clearly not true. But that incident wasn’t one of them and sometimes do I wish the US would stop foisting its own cultural insecurities on the rest of the planet.

Yes, it’s racist.

I suppose I could provide an explanation for why it’s racist, but there’s no point. Racists are gonna do what they’re going to do. And I know exactly how this thread is going to go:

I will point out that since there’s no clear indication of how the dances originated, you can’t rule out racism. That will fall on deaf ears. I can point out how referencing Moors actually indicates racism, because it indicates othering, but that to will fall on deaf ears. I will point out that England has a legacy of racism, and point to their colonial history. And I will get greeted by a bunch of idiots who’ve never actually studied English colonial policy and will point to Canada or Australia as examples of English colonialism working out well (of course, the fact that there were different rules for different colonies or different rules for white people is to be ignored). No matter how much historical evidence you bring to this type of discussion, there are always people who want to defend racism. Well, knock yourself out. Go find a Klan rally where you can wear your hood. But spare us these repeated infantile discussions, because we’ve heard your arguments over and over. They’re nothing new, and we know full well what you are up to.

It’s racist. And if they wanted to preserve their dancing traditions without being racist, they would find a way to. They don’t care, and I got no problem calling them immoral fuckstains.

I think that’s a bit harsh - Besides being appallingly unfair, it’s a bit of a long bow to draw (or an aircraft hangar wide brush to be painting with) to be saying anyone who doesn’t think the spirit behind the traditional dances mentioned in the OP is racist is a Klan member.

Okay, let’s take the OP:


So, even though the OP says we have no idea what the origin is, he’s decided that we can rule out racial stereotypes. Based on what? He just said he had no idea what the origins were.

Now, I’m willing to believe this is a language translation issue. But if the OP understands what he’s written in English, then this is pretty eye-rolling.

Are you English? If not, you are approaching this specific case with heavy cultural blinkers and are showing the same lack of sensitivity you accuse others of.

As it happens I agree with most of what you say, particularly the impact (intended or not) of “othering” an often-marginalised group in British society, but our colonial history is different to America and we’ve been working through this sort of thing for hundreds of years more than the USA. So it’s a debate worth having, but it’s our debate to resolve our way, and Americans telling us we’re racist by American standards is irrelevant.

I’m of Indian descent, and I’m quite familiar with English colonial policy, not just in India, but throughout the world. But, it doesn’t matter. If you agree with me about othering and marginalised groups, then you should be able to agree that these demonstrations are racist.

I’m aware the fashion now is to ignore intent and focus only on how it’s perceived by the victim; I personally think that’s misguided and cheapens the debate.

These dances are not done with racist intent, and they didn’t originate with racist intent. If the reasons behind the “othering” can be explained (i.e. that it symbolises dust from the mines, or Moorish trading partners), and if there is no negative connotation behind it (i.e. the dark figures are performing the same dance, and not symbolically stealing children etc) then there should be no offence taken.