Is blackface ever okay?

In September of this year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was caught in a firestorm of controversy with the media, facing criticism for wearing an Arabian Nights themed costume during a party in the early 2000s, with the costume involving the use of makeup to create ‘brownface’. Of course, Trudeau released an apology stating his regret for the outfit and that even though he didn’t think it was racist at the time, he can realise now that dressing in such a manner was unacceptable. However, at least two more instances of brownface were later revealed by the media, causing Trudeau to admit that he could not say for certain how many times he had used brownface.

In spite of this, the media furore seems to have had relatively little effect on the views of the majority of Canadians on their Prime Minister. An article from the New York Times asks Canadians for their thoughts on the scandal and although the vast majority agree that wearing black/brownface is unacceptable, it has different contexts in the US compared to other countries. They can’t blame Trudeau for something that happened when he was young and naive. They say his policies while in office, defending the rights of minority groups, are far more significant than a costume from almost 20 years ago.

Addressing the first point is perhaps most important, black/brownface certainly has a different context outside the US, but does that mean it is ever okay? In the case of America, I believe that black/brownface has the oldest and most problematic history. White actors wore dark makeup in shows, largely dating from the mid-1800s, to dehumanise black Americans, playing up offensive and dangerous stereotypes. While it may be argued now that wearing darker makeup is used to simply emulate a black character, I believe that it is near-impossible to separate this act from the history behind black/brownface. 

While I think that changing the colour of your skin to ‘play’ any existing ethnic group, including whiteface, is unacceptable, arguing that black/brownface is acceptable on grounds of equality ignores that whiteface was never used by black people to dehumanise and humiliate them, acting as part of a wider system of violence and humiliation. While the power of this history may even apply globally, especially in countries with a colonial history, such as the UK and Canada, I do believe there has to be a line for people who look for a way to respectfully emulate characters of a different ethnicity. 

Earlier this year, French Cosplay champion Alice Livanart was barred from a competition for entering with a prosthetic suit modelled after a black video game character. I believe her own defence sums up the story and my own thoughts on black/brownface in the best possible way, stating that while blackface is unacceptable, her costume wasn’t blackface, simply an homage with all the best intentions behind it.

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Harry Routley

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September 2021
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