Why there's no such thing as 'good' blackface

When white people casually use blackface to make a point about racism, it's thoughtless and insensitive

7th July 2020

George Floyd’s unlawful killing in Minneapolis sparked a wave of protests worldwide and support for the Black Lives Matter movement has led to much online discussion surrounding the portrayal of black people in the media.

Early 2000s TV shows such as Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh have been removed from streaming platforms for their use of blackface, while Leigh Francis is just one of several comedians to give an apology in the last month for his use of blackface following the decision by Channel 4 to remove his sketch show, Bo’ Selecta! from All4. Shows like Community and Scrubs have had episodes pulled and last week a scene from Peep Show was removed by Netflix because it featured blackface.

The divisiveness of the industry’s movement against derogatory depictions of people of colour is largely down to differences in opinion about what counts as racism. Is blackface used in television inherently racist? While the obvious answer is yes, some would argue that it can be used satirically or to send a message about the immorality of the practice — the idea being that the intention behind its use in this day and age is not the same as the intention when it first rose to prominence. The flaws with this thinking are obvious when looking at the cultural effect of blackface from the 1800s to today. 

History

The practice peaked in popularity in America during the post-civil war period that saw many recently freed slaves who demanded equal rights suffer the hostility of a society that was yet to accept them. 

Thomas Dartmouth Rice founded minstrelsy in 1830s America, a form of entertainment consisting of skits depicting people of African descent in a negative sense. The dictionary definition of blackface calls it “dark make-up worn in a caricature of the appearance of a black person”. The key word being “caricature.” While caricatures are not always negative, by definition their features are always exaggerated. White actors painted their skin using coal tar and shoe polish with intentionally massive red lips. The characters they portrayed were lazy, hypersexual, criminal, and usually cowardly, negative stereotypes that helped reinforce white people’s belief that they were superior. These labels were the roots of much of the institutional and systemic racism faced by black people today.

Winding the clock forward a hundred years, in 1958 the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show was born, an extremely popular variety programme that would run on prime television for 20 years.

At the time of its launch, American Minstrel routines were viewed as outdated, with the Western world becoming ever so slightly more tolerating of people of colour, and the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination submitted a petition for the show’s axing. 

Blackface may not be used in bad spirits in this era, but its history is steeped in the dehumanisation of black people

The appeal fell on deaf ears, however, with the BBC Board of Management deciding based on the views of the general public that “the programme was not racially offensive.”

The decision to cancel the programme, as its “racist implication” finally dawned on the higher-ups at the BBC, upset dedicated fans, but Bill Cotton — the controller of BBC One at the time — told them: “It’s all very well people who are not black saying ‘I didn’t think about it that way’, it’s the people who are black” whose views need to be acknowledged.

Comedy

His words are as relevant today as they were then. The idea that people aren’t watching shows like Little Britain with the same derogatory eyes that were used by the white people that loved the early minstrel shows isn’t really relevant when the prejudice that blackface perpetuates can still be felt by some black viewers.

Chat-show host Trisha Goddard recently spoke on BBC’s Newsnight about the effect that Leigh Francis’ blackface depiction of her had on her life.

“I’ve only recently discovered how bullied my children were over the character,” she told Newsnight’s Emma Barnett. “It was the big lips, all the things that every black child has been bullied about.”

The question ‘is it acceptable in some instances?’ cannot be answered by anyone who isn’t black

Blackface may not be used in bad spirits in this era but its history is steeped in the dehumanisation of black people for the sake of keeping them below their white oppressors. For this reason, the question “is it acceptable in some instances?” cannot be answered by anyone who isn’t black.

Comedian Harry Enfield came under scrutiny last month for his use of blackface on television in the past, portraying former South African president Nelson Mandela as a drug dealer and his defence for his actions echoes a common viewpoint regarding the recent race-related cancellations.

“The whole point was to say how preposterous it was to have this stereotype by playing Nelson Mandela as this stereotype,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Perhaps it is best for TV programmes that wish to make statements about racism to consult those personally affected by it

The removal of the scene from Peep Show has been met with a similar response, as white fans stepped over each other to point out that it wasn’t the “bad” type of blackface. The scene in question comes from the first episode of season two, which aired in 2004. Jez (Robert Webb), one of the main characters, is trying to impress Nancy (Rachel Blanchard) by breaking “sexual taboos”, one of which is wearing blackface.

Jez asks Nancy: “Are you sure this isn’t racist?”, to which she replies: “We’re breaking a taboo, of course, it feels wrong” before adding: “Jeremy, I come from America. I’ve seen the problems race brings up.”

The intention with these jokes is to point out the stupidity of blackface and racial degradation, and poke fun at the ignorance of the characters, but the negative connotations for black viewers of seeing blackface on their screens are impossible to avoid. Especially when these jokes are coming from writers who will never have to experience the kind of oppression that ethnic minorities regularly endure. As black comedian Ava Vidal told the New York Times: “You’ve got to let black people and people of colour decide what racism is.”

Perhaps it is best for TV programmes that wish to make statements about racism to consult those personally affected by it. Using blackface, whether as a means of getting a message across or for the sake of humour, demonstrates a lack of sensitivity towards the cruel history of the practice. Regardless of how times may change, it will always be best to channel social commentary in a way that people of all races can fully engage with and appreciate.

Main image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

7th July 2020