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Nov 18 2013

Madcap students having larks

Oh good grief. Do students who are members of the Edinburgh University Law Society really need to be told that white people “blacking up” by way of a costume is not funny or cool or hip this late in the game?

The Beerientering event, which took place on Thursday night, asked students to follow an “around the world” fancy dress code.

However, pictures soon began circulating on social media of four students – three men and one woman – “blacked up” to represent Somali pirates.

Third year Social Anthropology student Amie Robertson, 19, who is a member of the Amnesty Society and the Tibet Society, was one of those who challenged the group.

She said: “We ran into them in The Three Sisters bar. We tried to explain that their costumes were deeply offensive and racist. They didn’t even deny that, they just said, ‘Oh, it’s only for one night’. One of the members of the Vegetarian Society, who is of Pakistani descent, told them if they really thought it was okay, they would let her take a picture – and they did!”

And then the next day they said it was just a coincidence! And it was a dare! And nobody said anything! And they were brave heroes!

The Edinburgh News goes on to ask the question I know you are all shouting as you read:

 Is blacking up always as offensive as the politically correct would have us believe?

Ah yes the politically correct, the dreary pious self-righteous always-pestering politically correct, in contrast to the free-spirited, the witty, the rebellious, the original, the fearless, who cover their privileged pallid skin with brown makeup in defiance of all that correctness.

In a pig’s eye.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Pen

    The black population of Edinburgh seems to be considerably under 1%. Yes, I think many of them they may need to be told, that and almost anything else you can imagine about racial politics. Especially since I suppose they’re all about 19 and unless they’ve spent time reading the kinds of sites and texts you have to read to learn that kind of stuff they couldn’t possibly have found out. It isn’t taught in schools, along with a comprehensive list of everything anyone in the world anywhere also finds offensive. It isn’t taught by their parents who don’t know either. It hasn’t been taught them by black friends or acquaintances because with those demographics the chances of them having any are pretty low. It only came up in their lives at all because they happened to choose to disguise themselves as Somali pirates instead of Vikings like they should have done. People really should try to keep some kind of a grip on what other people’s life circumstances are likely to have been before forming expectations.

  2. 2
    octopod

    That’s an interesting point. As far as I know (I’m an American from the West Coast), blackface — specifically the dark-skin makeup, not any other associated costuming customs — is offensive for historical, contextual reasons, not because it’s inherently disrespecful as e.g. dressing as an ethnic stereotype would be. Is this correct? If so, then if someone lacks that context, how are we to tip them off that it’s not a polite thing to do?

  3. 3
    Stacy

    I’m inclined to agree with Pen. Context is important.

  4. 4
    Silentbob

    I also agree with Pen. Not every place has the same taboos as the United States.

    I remember a while back there was an incident in Australia where a group of students appeared on a comedy/talent show doing a parody of the Jackson Five. It caused quite an outrage… in the USA! In Australia, many people didn’t know what all the fuss was about. They were playing the Jackson Five – of course they wore black makeup! If you were playing Mr Spock, wouldn’t you wear pointy ears and turned up eyebrows?

    On another occasion, many years ago, Muhammad Ali visited Australia and was interviewed by a well-known Australian TV presenter. They were joking around when at one point the presenter turned to the camera and said, “I like the boy!”. Ali nearly punched his lights out. The poor Australian TV presenter had no idea what he’d done wrong – he was unaware of the baggage attached to calling a black American “boy”.

  5. 5
    Lukas

    In Europe, the stigma attached to blackface is almost non-existent. At this point, the connection between blackface and racism is mostly relegated to the US, due to its own history. It’s slowly making its way across the pond, and people here are (very slowly) starting to see blackface as racist, but that’s mainly a result of American cultural imperialism (for lack of a better word).

    Kids over here are starting to go trick-or-treating on Halloween because they see it on US TV shows, even though that custom simply didn’t exist even five years ago. Similarly, US cultural norms of what constitutes racism are starting to become accepted over here. But this is a slow process, and most people (black or white) in Europe don’t associate blackface with minstrel shows and slavery, because minstrel shows and black slavery were never a big part of Europe’s history.

    Of course, there’s the inherent problem with using other people’s culture as a costume (e.g. dressing up as “an Indian”), which also applies to dressing up as a Somali pirate — at least to some degree. But I think we should be careful when applying local social norms of what constitutes an insult, or what constitutes racism, to people who live in other countries and other cultures.

    A lot of the stuff Americans do is deeply offensive to people living in different cultures. That doesn’t give them the right to impose their values on Americans, either.

  6. 6
    Dunc

    Is blacking up always as offensive as the politically correct would have us believe?

    Yes. This has been another instalment in the ongoing series “Simple answers to stupid questions”.

    And I say that as an Edinburgh resident. Mind you, I’m old enough to remember when “The Black And White Minstrel Show” was prime-time Saturday night family telly on the BBC… Which isn’t as old as you might think.

    I’m also not at all sure that I’d agree with Pen’s assessment of the black population here. It’s increased quite noticeably in the last few years, especially in my part of town.

  7. 7
    Stacy

    I take back my agreement with Pen. I was lazy and chimed in without reading the linked article. From the last paragraph:

    But it is the act’s association with minstrel shows which has earned it its racist status. Minstrels and toy golliwogs – once a staple of toy cupboards across Scotland – are now frowned upon in all sections of society because of blacking up’s links to the evils of slavery. When it comes to racism, ignorance is never a defence. It is one black and white argument where there are still no grey area.

    So the association between “blacking up” and minstrel shows and slavery is known and understood in Edinburgh. (If I’d read more carefully the first time, I’d have noticed that the kids “didn’t even deny” the racism.)

    It wasn’t a lack of context. They didn’t need to be told they were doing something racist. They just didn’t care.

  8. 8
    Pen

    Well, Stacey, I’m going to have to point out that although the article says it, I have to differ from Dunc and say that I don’t really know what a minstrel show is today. I suppose it has something to do with the events in the Jeeves and Wooster story I reference below? I don’t know how ‘blacking up links to the evils of slavery’ or even what that sentence is supposed to mean, especially since, if I’m guessing rightly about minstrel shows they are from a post slavery era. I am certain my daughter who is 12, has never heard of golliwogs and doesn’t know what one is so I guess she’s all set to become the next generation of ignorant nineteen year olds. However someone recently informed us in the Guardian that the golliwog was invented in the context of Jim Crow laws and segregation. I bet not many people knew that. It’s another Scotland story which readers of this post might find interesting. I may do a little test tonight and try to find out what my daughter makes of a golliwog if I put its picture in front of her for the first time ever. So myeah, the article didn’t actually do a survey, did it…?

    Since I was curious, I checked up on the only instance of blacking up I knew of in British culture, which is in Jeeves and Wooster. The original story was written in, I suppose in the 30s or 40s. The BBC series aired in the 1990s with a slightly altered plot but still with blacking up. Does anyone know if this led to any outcry or discussion at the time? I can’t remember or find any info on it. Regardless, many 19 year olds would be unaware of it, obviously.

    PS. I looked up Edinburgh’s demographics before commenting on them but things do change quite quickly.

  9. 9
    Dunc

    Since I was curious, I checked up on the only instance of blacking up I knew of in British culture, which is in Jeeves and Wooster.

    I guess you’re not old enough to have watched BBC prime time Saturday night TV in the 70s then?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_and_White_Minstrel_Show

    The Black and White Minstrel Show was a British light entertainment show that ran on BBC television from 1958 to 1978 and was a popular stage show. It was a weekly light entertainment and variety show presenting traditional American minstrel and country songs, as well as show and music hall numbers, usually performed in blackface, and with lavish costumes.

    The first petition against it was in 1967.

    But yes, I suppose it’s possible that we’ve been so successful at making this sort of thing unacceptable that there’s a generation growing up who have simply never heard of it.

    As for the demographics, it could well be that I have a biased impression, as I don’t tend to hang out in the expensive, upper-middle class parts of town very much…

  10. 10
    Pen

    I guess you’re not old enough to have watched BBC prime time Saturday night TV in the 70s then?

    No. I was born in 1970 and in any case lived in another European country from 1972 to 1979 and 1993 onwards. Besides, I was broadly discouraged from watching television. One cartoon a week till I was 10 and then we were allowed to watch the programs aimed specifically at on BBC during our teens.

  11. 11
    Pen

    Correction to #9: ‘aimed specifically at kids’. Sorry

  12. 12
    MadHatter

    Whether or not minstrel shows or the blackface associated with them was imported from the US (at any time in the past) or not doesn’t change the context. The fact that no one under 45 has probably seen a minstrel show doesn’t either. As a member of the privileged class in the west I can’t believe there’s a time that wearing blackface, or painting your skin red to be a Native American, or finding some way to make yourself look “Asian” by pretending “slant” eyes, is ever not offensive.

    You can be in costume for any character that happens to also embody a racial component without resorting to racist stereotypes.

  13. 13
    Stacy

    I don’t know how ‘blacking up links to the evils of slavery’ or even what that sentence is supposed to mean, especially since, if I’m guessing rightly about minstrel shows they are from a post slavery era.

    Minstrel shows began in the 19th century, during slavery. The characters conformed to racist stereotypes. The shows tended to portray slaves as content and happy-go-lucky.

    Post Civil War, the stereotypes remained.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel_show

  14. 14
    Pen

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel_show

    That’s …. fascinating. Actually, I can see a kind of connection to Punch and Judy and Commedia del’Arte and related performance arts in Europe but with race built in. It had to have race built in, didn’t it, because it’s America.

  15. 15
    Gordon Willis

    Kids over here are starting to go trick-or-treating on Halloween because they see it on US TV shows, even though that custom simply didn’t exist even five years ago.

    More like fifteen years ago, where I live. But otherwise I agree. Nobody to my knowledge talked about it back in the 50s. It didn’t exist in Britain till (comparatively) recently and, yes, it’s a nasty foreign import. But kids don’t know that.

    because minstrel shows and black slavery were never a big part of Europe’s history.

    No, we either kept them in the colonies or sold them to the Americans.

    In other news:
    My mother adored “The Black and White Minstrels Show”, and the only comment I ever remember hearing her make about ethnic minorities was that some Indian woman didn’t seem to be wearing anything under her sari. This was in the late 50s. I took this (and still do) as a female fashion statement. Queen Elizabeth I tried to get fashionable black servants “sent back” to Africa, but nobody took any notice and their descendants of varying shades of grey are still here. Their ancestors were probably here a lot earlier, maybe since the crusades, or even the Romans. Well, all right, some were newly imported, but others were here already, along with Saracens and Moroccans and (till the 13th century, at least by law) Jews: not enough to make a showing in Gower or Chaucer or Malory, but they were here, nevertheless. I expect that scattered around Britain there are descendants of the Phoenicians.

    I read recently that some people want to get rid of our native sycamore trees, because they’ve only been here a mere 600 years or so. I can imagine these cretins walking around feeling hatred and disgust every time they see an “English maple”. How many generations of trees would they require before they considered them “native” (and redolent of good feelings and nice thoughts)? Nettles and sweet chestnut trees were, apparently, introduced by the Romans. Would they qualify as “native”? Perhaps (to a Celtic nationalist) an imperialist imposition, or (to an environmental purist) alien species. Who makes the rules, and why? If I dressed up as a tree would it signify contempt for an endangered species? If I did not dress up as a tree, would it signify belief in environmental purity?

  16. 16
    ewanmacdonald

    I’m Scottish – grew up near Glasgow, in a town far less multicultural than Edinburgh, lived there for most of the first 27 years of my life. Now live in the USA. So that’s my background.

    Anyway:

    Pen, the idea that supposedly educated people of undergraduate age don’t know that blackface is taboo in Scotland is ridiculous. They absolutely do. I graduated from a Scottish uni eight years ago and this would have been regarded as taboo then just as now. Scots are simply not insulated from the wider world in the way that you’re implying, and frankly it’s insulting to claim that we are.

    What these students did was insensitive and offensive. I dare say breaching the taboo was part of the attraction. But even if it wasn’t, I don’t find the ignorance of it plausible, not in the least, because the harmfulness of anti-black stereotypes are known in Scotland (as they are in the UK) and have been for decades.

  17. 17
    medivh

    Errm… the idea that wearing another culture or race as a costume is literally objectifying can’t be that hard to grasp. Can’t even be that hard to clean-room engineer, were one to have cause to think about the effects of one’s costume… Not sure I understand where any possible support for EULS would come into this, really.

  18. 18
    Julia F

    @15 Gordon Willis: going from door to door in costume, asking for treats is hardly a nasty foreign import. “Guising” was practiced in Britain and Ireland for several holidays, including All Souls and All Saints from the Middle Ages on.

    Trick or treating really began in the US with the influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. It became a popular national custom at the beginning of the 20th.

  19. 19
    Gordon Willis

    @JuliaF
    it’s a nasty foreign import. But kids don’t know that.

    This is called irony. Also, I was talking about Hallowe’en (re Lukas #5). Also also, you forget about Christmas carollers.

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