Don’t do it.
I shouldn’t have to write this column. I really shouldn’t. I feel that in the Year of Our Lord 2015, the fact that I’ve been compelled to write a column explaining why blacking up is wrong and why you shouldn’t do it – especially when anyone who reads this column regularly knows I’d much rather write about Lidl or something of similarly little consequence – is a pretty damning indictment of where we stand as a culture when it comes to issues of race. It’s also particularly frustrating because I know that the overwhelming majority of people who read this fine publication aren’t fucking morons. You know that you shouldn’t black up, and you know why you shouldn’t.
But there are people that don’t. Nigel Farage, for instance, has gone on record saying he doesn’t see the problem with it, because of course he has. More recently, The Tab posted an article last week entitled, ‘In defence of blacking up’, standing up for the God-given right of every student to slather themselves in as much black, brown or red paint as they see fit. The article cited the example of the York University students who in 2013 dressed up as the bobsled crew from Cool Runnings, leading the author to say, “The characters are black…so they painted themselves black. What is the problem with this?” Wait, actually, my mistake. That was a comment left on the MailOnline’s article about the same four students. The actual line was, “they aren’t using this costume to be derogatory or “perpetuating stereotypes” – they are just dressed as the main characters from Cool Runnings.” You can see how that’s confusing, right?
It bears reminding that blackface originated as a mockery of black people and black culture, and is but only one chapter in the sordid, shameful history of racism. It’s for this reason that the idea white people taking offence to ‘whiting up’ doesn’t really work; whiteface hasn’t been used as a method of cultural repression against white people. By adopting blackface, you reduce an entire race of people to a costume. You reduce an entire race of people to a set of characteristics that they must be seen as, before they can be seen as anything else. The fact that we still see headlines like “FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT” or “FIRST BLACK DISNEY PRINCESS” is indicative of how we still differentiate by race, because it’s what we see first. Generations before us grew up with blackface as acceptable, which reinforced the ‘us and them’ mentality entrenched within society. Blackface is no longer the norm, because society realised a while ago that it was fucking stupid.
When students black up, I doubt many do so in an effort to actively participate in the mockery of a certain people or culture. But, the thing is, when you black up, the intent behind your decision is meaningless. By adopting blackface, you’re indicating that race is the defining characteristic of a person, and that their actions are only meaningful within the context of their race. And surprisingly, people who aren’t white don’t think of themselves as ‘not white’. They think of themselves as people.
I’m perhaps lucky that, although being half Indian, I look, sound, and act, ‘white’. Perhaps if I didn’t, I’d be subject to more questions about why I study journalism instead of maths or engineering. Or why I can’t cook a curry. Or why my Indian mother, a good Christian lady, isn’t a Hindu. I count myself very fortunate that I don’t have to deal with the vast majority of racist, stereotypical bullshit that seems to be part and parcel of not being white.
At the heart of all of this is the concept of ‘real racism’, and it obviously varies wildly depending on who you are and what you believe, as evidenced by the fact that this is still a debate. But we should remember that racism isn’t always overt, nor is it always intentional. It’s just that we tend to look at racism in black and white terms, as though racism is only legitimised when it’s an extreme example, like a group of white men stopping a black man getting on a train. However the problem with that, is the subtle and unintentional racism that’s so much more widespread throughout society, is seen as less of a problem. In fact, often the opposite is true. Ask any young black men in London that have been stopped by the police because they fit a description. Ask any Muslim who’s been randomly searched at an airport. Ask any Native American who’s been campaigning for years against the misappropriation of their people as mascots for sports teams. Discrimination is a lot harder to stop when we don’t see it as real, and blackfacing is a form of discrimination as real as any of the ones you’ve just read.
Despite what some may tell you, our society is a multicultural one that coexists very well, and it works because minority groups now have some sort of voice in the way they’re represented. But it would be naïve to suggest that we now live in a glorious post-racial Britain where everyone judges each other by the content of their character, because we see every day that stereotypes still exist. And blackfacing, brownfacing, redfacing, whatever, is still something that lends a hand in keeping them alive. Please stop doing it.