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Why is Blackface still alive?

RECURRING: Australian model Sophie Applegarth and a friend dress up in blackface while pretending to be Serena and Venus Williams (Photo credit: Instagram)

IN RECENT times, despicable practice of blackface has started to resurface in the spotlight of mainstream media.

While many believe the UK are progressing with fight against racism at a faster rate than our counterparts across the Atlantic, they were embarrassingly slow to put an end to mainstream blackface.

ORIGINS

Also known as “blacking up”, blackface is a form of make up popularised in the 19th Century used by a non-black person to appear as black. It was sometimes accompanied by an Afro wig to mimic black hair texture and/or additional makeup to exaggerate the size of the person’s lips.

In the 20th century, the phenomenon evolved into other avenues of entertainment such as minstrel shows, where actors would use blackface makeup and depict black people as lazy, mentally slow, happy-go-lucky and buffoonish caricatures.

The blackface imagery also took cartoon form via the reinvigoration of the Golliwog doll. In the USA, minstrel shows ended in the 1960’s due to the Civil Rights Movement.

The BBC aired its first episode of The Black and White Minstrel Show in 1958 and the show maintained a 20-year run with a peak viewership of a staggering 21 million.

Despite one of the last prominent blackface shows in the Western world ending in 1958, blackface still occurs in various countries. I had initially come to believe the vast majority of the West had learned its lesson - boy was I wrong.


The Black and White Minstrel Show (Photo credit: Getty Images)

PATTERN

Within this last month, there have been no less than three high-profile cases of people ‘blacking up’. We’ve had Australian model Sophie Applegarth dressing up with her friend in their attempt to ‘be’ Venus and Serena Williams.

We’ve also had the Atletico Madrid and France star Antoine Griezmann blacking himself up for a highly offensive Harlem Globetrotter rendition that somehow didn’t include a Harlem Globetrotter jersey.

Additionally, the Star Sports bookmaker took it upon themselves to post a tweet of a man in blackface dressed as Diane Abbott at the World Darts Championship.

What worries me about these situations is not just the ignorance leading to these incidents occurring in the first place, but the stubborn disregard when being met with rightful criticism and outrage.

Sophie’s friend, who also did blackface was confronted online because of her antics. She responded with the audacity of telling her critic they didn’t know what racism was. She was not only comfortable in her ignorance, but accused someone evidently more informed on the topic of lacking intelligence on the matter.

The Frenchman Griezmann responded to his backlash with a tweet, which in my opinion translated to: "Calm down everyone. I'm a fan of the Harlem Globetrotters and this is a tribute." He displayed a complete disregard for any potential offence and even suggested it was his way of showing appreciation for the Globetrotters.

A spokesperson for the Star Bookmaker crassly responded, saying: “We’re not going to please everyone.” As well as asking critics to “please stop taking things so seriously.” Because an act invented with the purpose of ridiculing an entire race and perpetuating negative stereotypes isn’t to be taken seriously at all is it?

DEFENSIVE

These responses were all shortly followed up with an apology for their actions. Whether those apologies came from a sincere place or the fear of their earning potential taking a hit - we will never truly know. But the initial refusal to listen to people taking genuine offense is paramount as well as worrying.

It mirrors the everyday racism people of colour face where the culprit is completely oblivious to their wrongdoing and too defensive or ignorant to accept their mistake once confronted. I’m not sure whether it’s the defensive nature of humans in general or that certain demographics are more offended by being called racist than racism itself.


Antoine Griezmann (Photo credit: Twitter)

In self-serving terms, it makes sense for them because racism doesn’t affect some people as directly as being branded a racist would.

However, in terms of humanity, the best option for everyone moving forward is to hold your hands up to any wrongdoing and open yourself up to learning from your misjudgement.

I hope these incidents are a simple case of being uneducated. Nobody in their right mind would be informed on the history of blackface and see these incidents for anything less than racism. Whether you had malicious intent or not, you simply cannot ignore historical context at your convenience.

So why is blackface still alive? Because even though much has changed for the better since it began in the 19th century, one thing hasn’t - many people believe their entertainment values outweigh the significance of racial sensitivity.

Our outrage isn’t even worth thinking about as long as they’re still having a good time. Remorse only seems to be shown if consequences arise that negatively impact them.

The BBC were once willing to ignore how racist their show was for 20 years because tens of millions of Brits were having a good time watching it. Luckily, the social climate has improved since then and the voice of everyday people has been magnified by social media, increasing the pressure on offenders to be more considerate. With that said, the reaction from the racially insensitive is unfortunately pretty much the same.

This sluggish reflex behaviour towards all discriminatory subjects will result in minimal progress when it comes to cohesion. There will be no real understanding between people, only incidents where culprit learns their behaviours are inappropriate after the damage has already been done, followed by a reluctant apology where the offender doesn’t really grasp what they’ve done wrong but won’t do it again in public in order to avoid further drama.

That lack of understanding is likely to mean the offender will offend again, clumsily striking the same nerve in a different way.

Racism is systematic, but while a large number of individuals maintain this lack of compassion for our predicament, we’re going to have to acknowledge situations of this nature will keep happening. Until this changes, blackface is going to be a practice that lives a long and unwelcomed life.

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