Is Blackface as Offensive in Other Countries as It Is Here?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 27 2012 7:35 PM

Do Other Countries Find Blackface Offensive?

Israeli soldier who posed “Obama style” claims he’s not racist.

Dutch black Pete.
Black Pete, a holiday figure in the Netherlands and Belgium

Ivonne Wierink-vanWetten/iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

Israeli Lt. Sacha Dratwa, who oversees social media for the Israel Defense Forces, posed in what he called “Obama style” blackface in a photo he uploaded to Facebook in September. Dratwa closed off access to his Facebook account on Sunday, after a Lebanese blogger discovered the photo, and defended himself saying, “I’m not racist.” Does blackface carry racist connotations outside the United States?

Yes. While the conventions of blackface have their roots in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, its racist caricatures didn’t take long to spread abroad. Of course Americans weren’t the first to wear dark makeup to play black characters—white people were made up to portray darker-skinned people at least as early as the times of Shakespeare’s Othello. But it was only in the mid-19th century that white performers like Thomas D. Rice established the conventions of blackface and the minstrel show, which typically featured white performers doing songs, dances, and comedy while acting out exaggerated racial stereotypes. These performances began in America, where they toured all over the country, but they quickly spread to Western Europe and especially the British Empire. Rudyard Kipling noted blackface among British troops in India, and when Commodore Perry famously sailed into Tokyo Bay to open Japan to the West, he brought a minstrel show with him. In the early 20th century the conventions and iconography of blackface continued to be exported abroad through American popular culture, including in American cartoons, movies, and commercial products. The American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s effectively ended the cultural legitimacy of minstrelsy here, as Americans came to realize why the tradition was offensive. Today in the United States it’s generally understood that any performance that reduces another race to stereotypes can be considered offensive, but because of the painful history of minstrelsy, even just the act of blackening one’s face is seen as racist and abhorrent.

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In the U.K., however, the popular television program The Black and White Minstrel Show, which featured white performers in dark makeup, wigs, and white lips, ran on the BBC from 1958 until 1978, attracting an audience of millions of viewers. Even today, the legacies of blackface survives in countries all over the world—accompanied by varying degrees of condemnation. The comics character Memín Pinguín remains popular in Mexico, and even came out in postage stamps in 2005, despite criticism that the character is depicted using racist iconography. In the Netherlands and Belgium, where Lt. Dratwa is originally from, they celebrate the holidays with Zwarte Piet (literally “Black Pete”), once thought to be Santa’s slave, and now a dark-skinned, wigged, and big-lipped helper. In 2009, Harry Connick Jr. was stunned when, while appearing on a reunion special of an Australian variety show, he was asked to judge a blackface performance of a group calling themselves the Jackson Jive. While the judges gave the performance low scores, many in the audience cheered, and Connick asked to address the camera to explain why it was so offensive to him as an American. In Germany, performances by actors in blackface are still relatively common, though many Germans insist that these depictions are not racist but simply arise from a shortage of black actors. A billboard in Berlin that featured a comedian posing in blackface with the caption “Ick bin ein Obama” (“I am an Obama”) similarly attracted protests from black Germans, but the comedian denied that he was participating in any racist tradition. South Africa has held a minstrel festival in Cape Town since the 1860s, though these days it’s carried on as a subversive act. In Japan, a trend called ganguro (literally “black face”) caught on in the mid-1990s as a way to rebel against traditional Japanese notions of beauty, but the fashion differs widely from blackface iconography, usually featuring girls in long blond wigs.

While most blackface traditions died out shortly after the establishment of the Jewish state in Israel, elements of blackface occasionally linger there. As the New York Times points out, an Israeli comedy team featured in Dratwa’s YouTube channel produced a satirical skit in recent years that mocked liberal attitudes toward African Jews with “Kazabubu the Jewish Cannibal,” a stereotypical African tribesman portrayed by an actor in blackface. American Jews also have a long and complicated relationship with minstrelsy. Al Jolson, a sort of Jewish Elvis and star of The Jazz Singer, who has been honored with postage stamps in Israel and in the United States, made his name as a minstrel performer but he was also known for standing up to discrimination against African-Americans.

Explainer thanks Dale Cockrell of the Center for Popular Music.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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