FAQs on Racist Imagery

When attempting to campaign against racism in general or blackface imagery in particular, activists and scholars are often met by vitriolic and dismissive responses. This experience can be off-putting and frightening especially when it is a recurring aspect to fighting against racism. Therefore, we have turned the usual concept of FAQs on its head with a compilation of some of the most prevalent responses to anti-blackface campaigns, countered by informed and effective replies. Next time someone tells you that blackface is a trivial topic or questions your right to speak up against it, you can refer them to this:

“Racism doesn’t exist in Europe. We all have equal opportunities now”

The idea that contemporary European societies have become post-racial, is a widespread, but unfounded assumption. Racism, exclusion, discrimination and xenophobia are still very much alive and cause socio-economic and political inequality in many if not all European countries. Countless reports have in the past years focused attention on the existence of racism and xenophobia and have offered substantive evidence of this. This has been done, for instance, by the European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS), the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). These and other institutions have researched and uncovered discrimination and unequal treatment of ethnic minorities when seeking work, asking for and receiving health care and applying for housing and education across the EU and show how spatial segregation, discriminatory advertisements and differential treatment in access to public services are visible throughout Europe.

“Why talk about blackface when there are bigger problems in this world?”

This is a method of deflection. First of all, racism should not have to compete with other wrongs in this world. Just because there are other problems, this does not mean this problem is not worthwhile to eradicate. Secondly, as already argued above, blackface and stereotypical imagery still contribute to many other problems. Racism, xenophobia, exclusion, discrimination and socio-economic and political inequality are for a large part the result of continuous stereotyping and subconscious or conscious negative portrayal of people of colour in popular culture and media. We should focus on this and break away from political and societal apathy, denial and deflection.

“Blackface is tradition”

This is the common fallacy of Ad Antiquitatem used in rhetorics. The fact that something has been around ‘for a long time already’ or is perceived as tradition, does not validate its existence per se. We should always remain critical to see whether practices that originated in past times are still worthwhile continuing. This happens all the time, as ‘traditions’ obviously change continuously. Many things that were acceptable in the past are no longer acceptable today and have been changed accordingly. Since cultural practices originate in a specific societal and temporal context and since that context is always changing, traditions should move along with that change.

“People (and children especially) don’t see race or colour”

Just as fashion magazines influence the way in which people perceive and judge ‘correct’ body proportions, negative imagery and stereotyping of people of colour influences people’s views on race. The effects of continuously portraying people of colour in specific roles as waiters, bellhops or chauffeurs instead of as lawyers, doctors or businessmen and women cannot, for instance, be underestimated. This also means that children are deeply affected by imagery on candy wrappers, in cartoons and popular festivals and folklore. Since all of society – including parents and popular media – sees race and since children are a part of society, the latter see race as well and experience racism in many varieties. Imagery and/or negative specific portrayals of people of colour have been proven to affect the way in which people/children perceive and judge race. We can think of such studies as Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes Experiment or the Clark Doll Test (repeated by CNN more recently).

“People who don’t like blackface are too sensitive. They are actually creating the problem by talking about black and white people”

We all see colour, whether we are fully aware of it or not. Still, some see and experience racism much more than others. It is important to listen to people when they tell you they experience racism. We all need to check our privilege. Who are you to tell anyone what is or is not offensive? Why not listen first to what someone has to say and do not abuse or use your power to dismiss the experience of others. Furthermore, you are not the standard. If you do not believe to be racist or to ‘see colour’, this does not mean racism is not there at all. Dismissing a person’s valid arguments and experiences as ‘oversensitivity’ is also degrading and patronizing

“Blackface has nothing to do with slavery”

Although blackface has been around before slavery, it gained much prominence due to and during slavery and attempts (in the USA and Europe) to continue to other POC and justify dominance over people of colour in the aftermath of slavery. Blackface minstrelsy came into existence in the USA in the nineteenth and twentieth century from Jim-Crow times onwards to portray people of colour as ignorant, dangerous and/or less than human. The English Gollywog was fashioned by author Florence Upton after an American  minstrel doll she had as a child. Likewise, the image of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands has directly been fashioned in 1850 after the image of a slave during a time when the Netherlands still practiced slavery in its colonies. So-called ‘slave earrings’ and ‘house-boy’ or ‘page suits’ are a direct link, as are pictures of Zwarte Piet in actual ball and chains [pic]. What is striking are the many similarities between these and other instances of blackface across the globe. Their common origin is the image of the black slave, subjugated by white dominance.

“Blackface is/can be a positive image”

Blackface is stereotyping and stereotypes are by definition not positive or balanced. They are always meant to exaggerate differences and/or to oversimplify in a usually pejorative way. Because people tend to see what they expect to see, and because people have a natural tendency to twist and distort the characteristics of others until it fits their stereotype of that particular group, stereotyping reduces complexity to simplicity and leads to inaccuracy and prejudice. Stereotypes are caricatures meant to label individuals and groups for convenience and/or to make fun of them. Because of overgeneralization within social perception, stereotyping leads to a great deal of inaccuracy in social perception. Furthermore, because blackface originated in slavery and racism, it can never again be anything even remotely positive. From the start of blackface, white (mis) conceptions of black people were shaped by minstrelsy’s mocking caricatures. This fostered the often still enduring belief that people of colour are racially and socially inferior.

“People who talk about race are racist”

Racism is prejudice and discrimination based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. It often takes the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems that consider different races to be ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities. It may also hold that members of different races should be treated differently. The key to properly understand racism is, therefore, the issue of (economic, military, cultural) power and dominance of one group over another. Therefore, speaking of race or bringing up problems of racism is not in itself in any way racist.

“Racism against white people is a bigger problem today”

Such an argument stems from an incorrect understanding of what racism is (see above). Racism towards white people is actually not possible as long as whiteness is considered to be the standard of all (good) things and the main source of power and authority in this world. Until that changes, racism is something that is really only experienced by non-white people. Any harmful treatment of white people is, furthermore, nowhere near as pervasive or as long standing as harmful treatment of people of colour in past and/or present times.

“Blackface is just a lot of fun and people should not be so serious about it. It is not meant to be racist so therefore it’s not”

We have to ask ourselves if the practice of blackface is fun for everyone (and for whom), whether – given its origins – it is really funny at all and whether one group should have fun at the expense of another? Perhaps you are also not the one who gets to decide when something is fun or racist (taking into account your privilege again…). Furthermore, intent and effect are two very different things. Just because something might not be meant as racist, does not make it any less so. When you accidentally hit someone in the face, you apologise and promise not to do it again. You do not say “I did not mean it this way, so quit your whining”.


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