/ 25 September 2019

Strip away the blackface that causes so much pain

While US president Donald Trump is cast as vile right-wing liar
While US president Donald Trump is cast as vile right-wing liar, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been heralded for his anti-Trump politics. (Reuters/Carlos Osori)



The prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, seeking re-election for a second term, has been caught up in a media storm over accusations of racism. Photos of a younger Trudeau were circulated showing him with his face blackened to play Aladdin. Days later a video surfaced of Trudeau wearing an Afro wig and his face covered in black paint while performing the Jamaican folk song Day-O.

Trudeau’s critics have said that these revelations, together with claims that he wore blackface on numerous other occasions, show him to be a hypocrite whose public image hides deeply held prejudices.

The spectacle and ridicule of white people wearing blackface serves no other purpose than to act out racist stereotypes that dehumanise black people. This dehumanisation has been repeated through history, in films, theatre, masquerades and even through national celebrations such as the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet.

The news about Trudeau is sensational and disappointing because he has been contrasted with Donald Trump, president of the United States. Trump is cast as vile right-wing liar, an old man who fans racist statements while Trudeau has been heralded for his anti-Trump politics, and as a young man who is antiracist and liberal.

Finding that Trudeau has worn blackface appears to devastatingly reinforce that we are in a new age of politics that is dominated by fake images built on fake news. Such news hides in plain sight the structural violence by which racism dooms many to short and brutish lives.

Easily missed is that headline stories about racist actions and ravings hide how black pain is misrepresented in dominant productions of knowledge and culture. As Susan Sontag said: “It is wrong to assume a ‘we’ when dealing with the pain of others.” She highlights how it is for politicians, corporations, academics, journalists and other knowledge elites to wear the faces of others without ever having to say a word that matters about the pain that is felt by others. Politicians often, quite literally, claim to represent the sufferers of this world.

Academics speak of “native” experiences without ever having to feel the pain of life on the margins. In marketing, “ghetto location” and other black experiences are appropriated and manipulated so that buyers experience and link brands with cool blackness without ever being bound up in the pain of black lives.

In the history of dominant racist logics, black faces matter for how they are used to brand whiteness. In the history of colonialism and apartheid, black faces matter for how they are made to smile and hide black pain. And black people who rise up against oppression are easily seen to be abnormal in some way or, as so often proved through our own history, troublemakers.

We need to say: “No black faces without black lives.” This is another way to remember Frantz Fanon’s classic, Black Skin, White Masks. We need to hear black music without forgetting the pain that runs through it. We need to find the courage to hear unspeakable words of black pain. We need to remember, with Maya Angelou, “why the caged bird sings”. Along with masses who have protested against apartheid and its legacies, we need to ask: “Senzeni na? What have we done? What have we done to be bearers of such unjust pain?”

One of the most touching moments of the post-apartheid era was how South Africans of all hues mourned the death of Johnny Clegg earlier this year. Clegg’s career started and ended by challenging apartheid boundaries. He sang of black pain, realising that black lives matter. This much can be heard, for example, in the enchanting song, The Crossing, which Clegg wrote in memory of Dudu Zulu, a percussionist he played with, who was killed in 1992. Clegg’s life showed that there is high honour for white people who respectfully embrace African cultural and political experiences. There is no truth to the fear that it is impossible for whites to embrace black cultural and political experiences.

What is wrong with Trudeau wearing blackface is that it says something about his failure to respect other people. It also says something about his failure to respect and check himself, and his awareness of his white privilege. Amid the rape, violence, xenophobia, murder and poverty of our times, we must dare to wash away the blackfaces that hide our shame-filled faces.

But, such failures do not only happen when paint is applied to a white man’s face. Unlike the visible racism of Trudeau wearing blackface, racism is not always worn that plainly. Individuals and societies are really good at hiding the proverbial painted faces that mock, ridicule or lampoon black pain. Many people unquestioningly live in comfort, profiting from social, political and economic arrangements that require the production of needless black pain.

It is time we all recognise that our societies are wearing blackface. It is time we say that it is not okay.

Colin Chasi is professor of communication studies at the University of the Free State