Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Problem With Blackface

Last Halloween I saw in Prisma (Finland’s Wall-Mart) a young man in blackface. He was wearing a brown 1970’s leisure suit with its typical wide collars and bellbottomed pants. He also had a black afro wig on. This does not happen in America. A Caucasian would be lynched for doing that. It is considered incredibly racist because of context. Finland does not have this same context making it not racist but ignorant. Just like the rockabilly girl with a confederate flag sown on her jacket she is probably more ignorant more than she is racist. This post is not for Americans but for other people around the world who don’t get the context.

Most of us know the context of the Nazi flag in Finland and it is only used by racists. This was not the case a few decades ago. I read a passage in a book called Häräntappoase by Anna-Leena Härkönen about this. Not having the text in front of me I will summarize from memory. The main character mentions a problem his school had with punks wearing the Swastika, in his school you weren’t really a punk unless you had one. The school had to ban them and educate the students on the holocaust. Did this dampen the enthusiasm of said punks to wear it? Not particularly. When you are proud of your identity and one of your symbols is tied up to ignorance you stick with your guns. I kind of think that a lot of rockabillies would still wear the confederate flag even if you told them what they meant; the compassionate intelligent ones would stop.

Let me explain the context of blackface as well as I can. I am no expert on it but I think I can explain a few things. It goes back to the Jim Crow era in the US, and to an even earlier time. Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South after the North won the civil war. They essentially kept Black people in the place they were in before the war. It allowed for the same discrimination. Essentially Blacks and Whites were separated in all public arenas and it made it possible for White healthcare workers to refuse lifesaving treatment to Blacks and even to refuse to perform their jobs in their presence. They prohibited intermarriage between Blacks and Whites and you were considered black no matter how little black blood you had, unless you could “pass” for white, which meant living as one and presenting yourself as 100% Caucasian [link].

This affected the casts of plays and movies, because Blacks and Whites did not perform together. For this reason White actors donned black paint on their faces to play Black people. They were always portrayed as dumb, lazy buffoons or as evil, violent and oversexed. These roles reinforced the role of blacks as less than, as animals. This helped to fuel a perversion of justice known as lynchings. Lynchings were a grotesque pass time for Southern Whites. If a Black man so much as looked at a white woman in a way that was interpreted as sexual interest by on lookers he would be hunted down and hung up on a tree and people would picnic with their children as his body bloated in the hot sun.

Lynchings were the furthest and cruelest extreme of Jim Crow. It also fostered poverty, ignorance and hopelessness. Blackface is a symbol of degrading blacks and portraying them with negative stereotypes and fueling violence and injustice. Blackface is the symbol of death and injustice the same way the swastika is or the confederation of the southern United States is. Let’s just stop blackface in Finland before it becomes a thing.

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