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A professional Australian basketball player sporting blackface sparked outrage on social media over the weekend. But not in the way you might think.
Painting your face in an apparent attempt to pretend to be African American is widely considered racist, a relic of 19th Century American minstrelsy, in which white people blackened their faces and portrayed a dehumanized caricature of black people.
But when Australian Opals star Alice Kunek did it for her national league’s “Silly Sunday,” she wasn’t the one to face the brunt of the backlash after posting it on Instagram.
The vitriol was instead aimed at her teammate Elizabeth Cambage, whose father is Nigerian. The prospective Rio Olympian said she was “shocked and disturbed” by the photo.
“Blackface is disgusting, I honestly have no words,” Cambage wrote on Twitter — only to be shot down by angry people who had plenty of words.
Another commenter added that “the only thing offensive about Alice Kunek’s costume is the political correctness coming out of Cambage’s mouth.”
Kunek has since apologized and deleted the controversial Instagram photo, replacing it with one that doesn’t include any dark paint on her face.
“I’m sorry that people would think my support of Kanye as being racist in some way,” was Kunek’s defence.
She told Australian media that she dressed as Kanye West because he’s one of her favourite artists, and stressed that she didn’t mean to offend anyone.
There’s a fine line between mockery and tribute – and blackface obliterates it, Marita Sturken, a New York University professor of media, culture and communication told The Associated Press in 2013.
Canada no stranger to blackface
Canada has blackface issues of its own.
And the issues go way back, says assistant professor Philip Howard of McGill University’s Faculty of Education.
“As a matter of fact, the writer of our national anthem — Calixa Lavallée — was a blackface minstrel. So … we can say that blackface minstrelsy is as Canadian as our anthem.”
Over the past three years Howard has spent studying cases of blackface in Canada, he’s noticed they happen across the country (usually during Halloween and frosh weeks).
In Quebec, though, he believes blackface has become “institutionalized” in arts culture.
Quebec comedian and actor Louis Morissette came under fire this month for complaining about Radio-Canada officials making him cast a black actor to play a disgraced black journalist in a year-end TV satire program.
As the Montreal Gazette reported, “Morissette likened what he called ‘a handful’ of critics of blackface to Internet trolls, or, more specifically, mosquitoes, buzzing around and taking the fun out of projects … with their demands for what he sees as political correctness.”
Morissette ended up hiring Normand Brathwaite, “the product of a white mother and a black father,” who also defended Quebec’s use of blackface.
“Blackface is where an actor covers his face with black, with big white lips. It’s designed so that people can laugh at black people,” Macleans quoted him as saying on a talk show recently.
“The blackface we do in Quebec,” he continued, “is done to interpret a character.”
In response, a group calling itself Les Moustiques (the mosquitoes) launched a petition calling for “the abolition of the practice of blackface in Quebec once and for all.” By mid-February it had close to 2,000 signatures.
Those behind it would like to see the government address under-representation of minorities in media and cultural productions.
In 2013, a Francophone comedian was ridiculed for donning blackface on national public television. In 2014, a theatre troupe‘s year-in-review show that portrayed Canadiens player P.K. Subban with a white actor in black makeup drew scorn.
The National Post stated Francophones often brush off blackface backlash as “much ado about nothing, calling it an anglophone-created controversy; and arguing that blackface, minstrel shows and slavery don’t have the same history in Quebec, and therefore the same rules don’t apply.”
Not so, says Howard.
“Professional troupes who were either Canadian or from the States would come to perform here. So there was definitely an audience for it here.”
“It’s the ignorance of this history, I think, and the assumption that in Canada we don’t have this history that are part of what perpetuates this problem.”
“Francophones say that it’s an Angolphone thing. Anglophone Canadians say it’s an American thing. … When in fact we really need to face up to the fact that, in terms of specifically blackface minstrelsy, it was an issue here in Canada.”
If we’re ever to see the end of blackface, Howard believes we need to start being “a little more honest” with ourselves about the history.
The second step is to stop silencing “black voices who do object” to blackface.
“I think if we were able to change things on both fronts, we might be actually to confront our history and our present. And change relationships on the ground.”