Blackface: Ignorance is no excuse, but it is an explanation
I have a confession to make: I have donned blackface. In 2002, at a residence dance with the theme ‘Opposites Attract’, my date and I decided that nothing could be more opposite than a Boeretannie and a bandiet. She being a fair-skinned blond could easily master the role of a white farmer’s wife. To show the contrast, I found some old clothes at the local second-hand store, printed a ‘pass’ to hang around my neck and, most importantly, attempted to paint my face. The latter, unfortunately for my date and everyone else who came in contact with me that evening, was less successful. See, this was before the era when Google was the source of all wisdom. I had to rely on my own ingenuity for the best way to darken my skin on a shoestring budget. Somewhere via the grapevine (never trust the grapevine!) I’d heard that Ricoffy mixed with Coca-Cola works best. Let me be clear about this: it doesn’t. The difference on my already tanned skin (it was summer) was hardly noticeable. Instead of making me darker, a pungent coffeeish smell enveloped me. Not a nice-morning-coffee smell; more like a I-forgot-to-wash-this-cup-of-coffee-for-the-last-two-weeks smell. That lasted until around 10 o’clock when I returned to my room to wash and change and save everyone the torment of my smelly presence.
But the point is: I donned blackface. And, disregarding my lack of ability to actually do so successfully, I committed the same offense in 2002 that two Pretoria University students were expelled for this week. The two white girls, attending a private 21st party, painted themselves in an attempt to mimic black domestic workers. Their picture soon circulated widely on social media and caused two distinct responses: those claiming that it is derogatory and those claiming that it is nothing more than student fun. Their expulsion (from their residence but not from university) has resulted in even more polar views, from “political correctness gone mad” to “white people don’t even realise they are racist”. On Facebook, Jonathan Jansen said “If two German students dressed up as Jews with exaggerated physical features, I wonder whether there they would have the same muted response to the way we allow youngsters to poke fun at hurtful, historical stereotypes of other people?” Rhoda Kadalie responded: “Why not punish Leon Schuster, Pieter Dirk Uys and Ben Vos. The universities should get a life and do research and make headlines for excellence not for student pranks which are just fun. Political correctness will kill this country!!!”
I have no reason to suspect the two girls harbour any bad feelings towards black people. They may, of course, but without any additional information, their use of blackface does not make them racist. It makes them ignorant. And while ignorance is no excuse, it is an explanation, and one that I can attest to from my own experience. I, too, was oblivious to the existence of blackface during my student years. Less than a decade after apartheid ended, Leon Schuster was making movies with caricatures of all kinds of South Africans and the country, I thought, was laughing along merrily. Finally some release from all the racial tension that had been built up for centuries! Yet what Leon Schuster did, what I did and what these girls did, was not okay. Blackface perpetuates a stereotype of black people that continued the psychological subjugation of one group over another. The thing is: I (and my suspicion would be, these girls too) were blissfully unaware of how we perpetuated these stereotypes. (I must add: so too were everyone else at the dance. The only comments I got was about my “strong coffee smell”. And not in a good way.) As I sit and write this more than a decade later, I wonder what those coloured and black students thought who also attended the dance? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure they were also unaware of the existence of blackface, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t feel a tinge of hurt, of irritation, of disappointment. I apologize if I did offend.
The first time I heard of blackface was when the issue became a national point of discussion in, wait for it, Holland. See, every year in early December, the Dutch welcome Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) and his helper, Zwarte Piet, into their cities, towns, and homes, handing out sweets and supposedly making people happy. But Zwarte Piet, as the name indicates, is black, and is almost always a black-painted white person with big, red lips and curly hair, a stereotype of the colonial way black people were often portrayed. (Another example: think of Tom and Jerry and Mammy Two Shoes whose face was never shown.) Surprisingly, the Dutch, who vehemently protested against South Africa’s apartheid and are considered one of the most liberal countries in the world, have a tough time letting Zwarte Piet go. One of the largest Facebook groups in Holland are pro-Zwarte Piet supporters. They, too, claim that Zwarte Piet is nothing more than everyone having a good time. But it is clearly not, as those opposed to its use have made abundantly clear. In July a Dutch court ruled that Zwarte Piet is “insulting” and the Mayor of Amsterdam was given six weeks to decide whether the festival in December would continue. There will be a lot of backlash, I’m sure, but like all traditions that offend, Zwarte Piet should disappear sooner rather than later.
In South Africa, the issue is even more complex: what to do with the Schuster films and other comedians who don blackface? What to do with the Cape minstrels (Kaapse Klopse), who, according to Wikipedia, use a “pared-down style of blackface which exaggerates only the lips”? What punishment for those who do indeed use blackface? Perhaps the expulsion of the two University of Pretoria girls is a harsh sentence for something that I think was nothing more than ignorance. One could rightfully ask whether the reaction would have been the same had they not painted their faces but wore the outfits with exaggerated features or simply painted their faces with no outfits? Probably not. These girls, I suspect, wanted to do something different and thought that a domestic worker costume is an easy, cheap and creative solution. They did not want to offend.
But they did, and that it was unexpected simply reflects their and the rest of white society’s obliviousness to the perceptions of black South Africans. Perhaps, then, there is truth to both “political correctness gone mad” and “white people don’t even realise they are racist” sentiments. Unfortunately for these two girls, though, it is necessary to lay down a marker: blackface is just not on. From now on, no-one should be able to claim ignorance. Not Schuster, not students at a 21st birthday and not even theme party revellers like me in 2002. Had I known then what I know now, I would have selected some other opposite to attract. Not only would I have saved my date from an utterly forgettable evening, but I would not have unnecessarily exposed my fellow South Africans to a culture of ingrained insensitivity.