What are blackface and brownface? CTVNews.ca's explainer
TORONTO -- As “blackface” and “brownface” trend on Twitter in the wake of Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau’s past racist costumes being exposed, CTVNews.ca delves into the meaning of the terms and reaction from people of colour.
The chatter online and fallout are being driven by pictures and videos of Trudeau culturally appropriating people of colour, years before becoming leader of one of Canada’s major political parties and subsequently prime minister.
University of Toronto Prof. Rinaldo Walcott, who teaches about social justice, said his supporters “must have been surprised that he would have engaged in such practices.”
But he said racialized people might not have been. “What we see is the racist unconscious of Canada on the table now in full display,” he said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.
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Brownface and blackface both refer to when someone paints or alters their appearance to appear like someone with a different skin tone. Although the terms have been used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between the two.
York University education Prof. Carl James, who examines race and marginalized people, said there’s a danger in lumping different racial groups together. “All these groups have a different history of their existence in Canada,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
WHAT IS BLACKFACE?
This practice’s origins are rooted in early 19th-century American culture, when minstrel performances saw white performers paint their faces black and their lips white as a caricature of black people and slaves.
Some historians consider blackface minstrelsy the first uniquely American form of entertainment.
Blackface perpetuates racist, offensive and demeaning stereotypes of black people and some historians explain that the practice also helped to downplay and diminish the systematic oppression facing black people.
The practice took hold in New York City in the 1830s and continued even after the end of the American Civil War. Blackface remained a staple in the entertainment world during the 20th century with famous singers such as Eddie Cantor and even Judy Garland dressing in blackface.
Black performers at the time even donned it in order to cater to white audiences.
On the left, an image obtained by TIME magazine shows an image of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing brownface makeup at a party in 2001. On the right, an image confirmed by CTV News shows Justin Trudeau in blackface during a highschool performance at Brebeuf College.
American and Canadian civil rights groups have publicly condemned the practice for decades and even as far back in 1848, abolitionist Fredrick Douglass publicly called a blackface act he’d seen an example of “the filthy scum of white society.”
Last Year, Ryerson University assistant Prof. Cheryl Thompson wrote in Spacing magazine that these minstrel shows were even performed throughout Canada. And more contemporary blackface incidents in Canadian society are “really a continuation of a centuries-long practice of domination over black people that requires us to think beyond race.”
Senior policy analyst at the Broadbent Institute Brittany Amofah told CTV News Channel this history is why she doesn’t buy Trudeau’s excuse that he didn’t know better back then. “It’s a way to excuse people from being held accountable for their actions.”
WHAT IS BROWNFACE?
Brownface refers to when people darken their faces using makeup, hair dye or traditional clothing to imitate and culturally appropriate Indian, Middle Eastern, Latin American or Indigenous people.
The practice serves to demean these groups and perpetuate racist stereotypes.
Although the origins of brownface are not as clear cut as blackface, examples have stretched back to the so-called “Latino lover” stereotype by Italian actor Rudolph Valentino during the films “The Sheik” in 1921 and “Son of the Sheik” in 1926.
More recent examples include Johnny Depp portraying Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” and actress Natalie Wood playing Maria in “West Side Story.”
In her book, “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film,” University of Virginia assistant Prof. of media and American studies Shilpa Dave said the practice of brownface can be accompanied by “brown voice” to portray stereotypical, racist behaviours and speech patterns of these aforementioned groups.
This has included Hank Azaria’s Apu from “The Simpsons” and Canadian actor Mike Myers who layed an Indian caricature in the film ”The Love Guru.”
HOW THESE INCIDENTS STILL OCCUR IN SOCIETY
Melayna Williams, director of rights for Rights Advocacy Coalition for Equality, told CTV News Channel on Thursday that she was “devastated and surprised” when she saw the photo.
“This is not the type of conversation this country is ready to have about racism,” she said. James agreed, saying “there are going to be lots of people who aren’t going to have a problem with it (the photo).”
But he stressed “we have to look at how institutions and our societies continue to enable these types of practices.”
James argued part of the reason why incidents such as blackface occur can be due to a lack of representation of people of colour as judges, elected officials and teachers and failing to see them as “part of the Canadian landscape.”
He adds that these incidents have forced elites, including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, and voters to address racism in Canadian society.
And this is particularly true when even Canada’s leader has issues, blind spots and racist acts to reckon with.
Lawyer Kofi Achampong and co-organizer of the Black Muslim Initiative told CTV News Channel on Thursday that Trudeau’s apology was only a first step because “words have to be matched with actions.”
In regards to some ingrained racist ideas, Achampong said society and Trudeau are now in middle of an “unlearning that we have to do in Canada.” And as for Trudeau's future beyond the election, Achampong said “I think he’s going to have to wrestle with (this) for the rest of his life.”
Amofah urged Trudeau to refrain from calling this a teachable moment and take more concrete steps to show he’s addressing it. She added that these images help to illustrate the ongoing criticism that “Trudeau has been quite hypocritical on … progressive statements and his positions on racial justice and Indigenous rights.”
WHY ARE THESE TERMS TRENDING?
The hashtags “brownface” and “blackface” began to trend on social media after two separate incidents in Trudeau’s past were unearthed, in which he said he dressed up as the fictional character Aladdin and a black singer with an afro.
Late Wednesday, TIME first reported that he appeared in brownface while he was a teacher at Vancouver private school West Point Grey Academy. This was captured in a photo that was in the 2000-2001 yearbook during the school’s annual dinner, which had an “Arabian Nights” theme, a Liberal Party spokesperson confirmed.
Within hours, Trudeau apologized and called his actions “racist” and said he “should have known better but I didn’t and I’m really sorry.”
He also referenced an incident during his high school years when he sang the traditional Jamaican folk song “Day-O” during a talent show. Shortly after CTV's Question Period host Evan Solomon tweeted an image of that performance where Trudeau appears in blackface.
And on Thursday, Global News revealed it had obtained video of Trudeau in blackface and a Liberal Party spokesperson confirmed that incident took place in the early 1990s.
With files from The Associated Press