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Blackface, trauma and cultural racism The roots and implications of the racist costume at the centre of the Brock University controversy

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By: Ismaël Traoré 

Brock University has been in the news lately for a Halloween party hosted by Isaacs/BUSU, where a group of four people (three white men and one brown man) dressed as the Jamaican Bobsled team and the three white men wore blackface: they painted their faces so they can “look” black — which apparently means shoe polish-like.

They won first place for best costume, which came with a $500 stipend. This is the third time I am aware of this happening at Isaacs. The first was in 2007. An all-white Bobsled team with blackface won second place. The second, in 2009, saw a white male with blackface emulating Lil Wayne. He won first prize with an $800 prize. Isaacs promised to not repeat their mistake when it was brought to their attention in 2009. Yet here we are, again.

Blackface has played a powerful role in the trauma and holocaust of black persons. An example of this is the movie Birth of Nations that revitalized the Klan. Because trauma is passed on generationally, we cannot dismiss how the past affects us today. The practice of cross-race painting by white persons triggers generational pain, and perpetuates cultural racism. Cultural racism, specifically discursive racism, is when a dominant group uses mediums of communication (ie. popular media, education, etc) to speak about, rather than with, a minority group, and in a manner that is negatively selective.

in these same channels of communication. While some may banalize it as mere talk — “get over it” — discourses shape our implicit thoughts, are stored in our collective cultural repertoire, and explain, for instance, why in a 2002 study by Joshua Correll and colleagues, titled “The Police Officer’s Dilemma, a Study on the Fatality of a Fraction of a Second,” white participants were quicker at shooting an armed black man in a video game simulation.

The fear-mongering of Muslims as terrorists is an example of this. Cultural racism not only is the practice of a dominant group speaking about an oppressed group selectively and stereotypically, but it also silences or tokenizes their voice than an armed white man, and more likely to not shoot an unarmed white target than an unarmed black target.

In short, white participants hesitated longer to shoot armed or unarmed white men, and were more likely to not shoot them when not armed and to misperceive unarmed black men as armed. White life matters more. These results were found not to be related to cognitive prejudice, but knowledge of racial stereotypes associated with black men that implicitly induce bias.

Blackface is a discursive medium through which white persons in the past and in the present practice cultural racism by perpetuating stereotypes about black persons through costumes, by selectively “representing” black persons. It is not a coincidence that blackface costumes nowadays are primarily of rappers, gangsters, or athletes. This is a reflection of the white imagination of black identity and black life. It is also what author Chimamanda Adichie speaks about in her fascinating TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.”

Many Jamaicans consider Cool Runnings offensive for it misrepresents Jamaicans by exaggerating a caricature, playing on stereotypes of “yes mawn,” and giving the save the day role to yet another white person. The actors were not even Jamaican. So while some may think a Bobsled blackface costume is “praising” or “celebrating” Jamaicans or Black people, this could not be further from the truth for it perpetuates stereotypes, continues a practice of cultural racism, and triggers and creates more generational trauma.

There is another matter to ponder: why is the practice of cross-race painting significant- ly over-represented by white persons and under-represented by persons of color? The very fact that “whiteface” is so infrequent as to be negligible is not a coincidence considering that behaviours do not occur in a vacuum. It is a reflection of a racial order that practices racism that has made it possible for white persons to consider blackness as a “thing”; to dehumanize blackness to an object such that it can be taken apart from the humans that have said skin colour, to then “wear” blackness without regard to how this may impact onlookers who are black, to “wear” blackness without a sense of repercussion or accountability whatsoever, and to defend continuing a practice that offends others by using target-blaming and “stop being insensitive” privileged rhetorics.

The blackface of the Brock bobsled team is less a reflection of costume accuracy, and more of a racialized order hierarchy and continuing history that encourages the mocking, fetishizing, and appropriation of those who are marginalized and have less social qua discursive influence. This behaviour exists within a culture that gives power to its dominant majority and absolves them from their action.

It is also a behavior that exists within a culture in which mainly, though not exclusively, white persons do not have to develop racial etiquette and cross-cultural competency to exist. Persons of colour, by the very nature of them being marginalized, do not have the luxury to take skin-colour issues lightly for skin-colour has material consequences.

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