The problem with blackface

There are times when dressing in someone else's cultural costume may be appropriate. Donning blackface, as a group of University of Montreal students did last month during frosh week, is not one of them. Natasha Fatah explains why.

This fall, thousands of young men and women entered university, many of them leaving their parents' homes for the first time.

In the months ahead, they will meet dozens of new people from different parts of the country, maybe even the world. An opportunity to broaden their horizons.

Imagine their excitement and nervousness about what opportunities await them.

Now imagine, in the midst of all this promise, that you're a young black student walking around campus during frosh week and you come upon a group of white students in dreadlock wigs, talking about smoking pot in bad Jamaican accents and wearing blackface makeup. What might that do to your morale?

Well, students at the University de Montreal had to experience just such a display last month when a group of white business students decided they wanted to pay "tribute" to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt by painting themselves black, as part of some first week of school, spirit-raising exercise.

People in blackface take part in a back-to-school event at the Universite de Montreal, Wednesday, Sept.14, 2011. This photo was provided by Anthony Morgan, a law student at the university. (Canadian Press)

Now, there are certainly times when dressing in someone else's cultural costume might be appropriate. For example, when you go to a traditional Indian or Japanese wedding, it's not uncommon for the guests to wear saris or kimonos. It's seen as a gesture of regard and is usually received with warmth.

Politicians do this, too, when visiting mosques, synagogues and Sikh temples. It's usually unnecessary and most of the time the politicians end up looking awkward if not ridiculous. But it's clearly done in a spirit of courtesy and accommodation.

But the blackface incident at the university's business school would appear to have gone well beyond either of those scenarios.

As Charmaine Nelson, an associate professor at McGill University wrote in the Montreal Gazette: "It is hard to believe the students' and university's initial explanation that the group's dress and behaviour were meant to honour the Jamaican Olympian Usain Bolt.

"[I]f Bolt had been on campus that day, would they really have greeted him dressed in this manner?"

Not about intention

What is also troubling about this incident is that none of the dozens of young men and women who planned and carried out this little show seemed to have thought anything was wrong. Neither, it would seem, did other students or faculty who witnessed this campus parade. 

If Anthony Morgan, a law student of Jamaican descent, hadn't walked past the display, recorded it and posted it on YouTube, it is very likely that none of us would even be aware of what happened — or aware of why it ought to be confronted.

University spokesmen would later say the frosh week stunt was "unacceptable" and "regrettable," but that this was "in no way a racist act."

But, as Morgan said, "this is not about intention. This is about the longer history that is attached to blackface. It has been historically used to denigrate black people — to make them look grotesque, seem subhuman, animalistic."

Just last year, I wrote a column about my shock at still, in this day and age, seeing images of Black Peter, a Christmas figure, all over The Netherlands, where children are encouraged to don blackface.

What's hurtful about this is that it tells the black community, and other communities of colour, that it doesn't matter if you become one of the greatest athletes in the world or the president of the U.S. or the most influential woman in daytime television or even a fellow classmate — we can reduce you to a caricature of a racist image that still seems to exist in the minds of too many people.

Little red dots

In my experience in Ontario in the 1990s, South Asian students were routinely mocked and harassed with racist comments.

We were called Pakis, and some of the white kids used to put towels on their heads pretending they were turbans. Some would also take red markers and put dots on their foreheads to show off their "Paki dots."

It was hurtful and humiliating, until a group of grade school students turned it around and started the Little Red Dot Club. They encouraged all the students, regardless of race or religion to wear bindis, the little red dots associated with Hinduism, on their foreheads. It was a means of defusing an ignorant act and reclaiming the dot as a positive and beautiful symbol.

I imagine it would be infinitely more difficult to do this with blackface, as it has so much of its roots only in racism and mockery.

Perhaps some young, creative students somewhere can think of something, something that won't get them on You Tube for all the wrong reasons.