Special Report: Examining the blackface debate
Published Tuesday, February 24, 2015 1:01PM EST
The debate over blackface has cropped up repeatedly in Quebec with critics saying people who wear stereotypical makeup are -- at best -- ignorant of history.
The latest instance involved an end-of-year sketch at the Rideau Vert Theatre, where an actor in dark face paint portrayed Montreal Canadien PK Subban.
That portrayal generated anger among of critics, who called it yet another instance of racism, while defenders said that blackface in Quebec just isn't the same.
Quincy Armorer, the artistic director of Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop, is among those saying that blackface is unacceptable no matter the intent.
"It would be wrong to try to distance ourselves from what it has been in the past. Yes we've come so far and all that wonderful stuff, but at the same time, if we're looking at blackface and what it is, that's what it is. It was created to mock black people," said Armorer.
Blackface originated in the 19th century with touring minstrel shows and continued well into the 20th century. White actors put on black makeup, often using burnt corks, and portrayed racist stereotypes of black people.
McGill professor Charmain Nelson teaches her students about the history of blackface shows.
"A lot of the characterizations were at the core stereotypes, and they were stereotypes that derive from slavery," said Nelson. "How this was performed was centrally through 'blacking up' which was to apply a really tar black makeup to the face which consisted of burnt cork -- so the makeup was never meant to look like black people. It was meant to position black people as grotesque."
Nelson says knowledge is essential to understanding why blackface is racist, but she's used to students who are uninformed, or misinformed, about the history of slavery in Canada.
"What they are taught is a three-decade history of abolitionism in the form of the Underground Railroad. So they're actually taught to celebrate Canadians as anti-racist or Canadians who facilitated the freedom of African-Americans, but the 250-plus years of slavery is totally absent from their national consciousness," said Nelson.
She said that many Quebecers know that francophones were oppressed following the British conquest, but are ignorant that residents of New France were oppressors themselves.
"We have a francophone community that was of course historically oppressed by the British when the British conquered the French in 1760, so they were colonized. But to complexify that, we need to understand that the people who became colonized were colonizers," said Nelson.
On the other hand many Quebec opinion makers say that portraying individuals in blackface, such as Subban at the Rideau Vert, or when comedian Boucar Diouf was portrayed by Mario Jean at a comedy gala in 2013, isn't the same.
"When Université de Montreal students go to a football game and dress up as a Rastafarian, complete with kinky hair and a big doobie, that's offensive because you're stereotyping an entire race," said Maclean's writer Martin Patriquin.
"When someone is in a theatre playing a certain human being with a name and a history, i.e. PK Subban, who happens to be black and there's a white person who's going to play him and he puts black makeup on his face, I think that's a completely different story."
Columnist Lise Ravary, like many Quebec writers, argues that sometimes makeup is just makeup.
"When the French say 'our tradition is different,' they really mean it. It's not a cop out. It's not something they're hiding behind," said Ravary.
Ravary said defending instances of blackface has made her a target, and said that many of her critics use a broad brush.
"Francophones, I think more than anything else, bristle whenever they're made to feel that they're more racist than anyone else in Canada because that's sadly something that we hear and read in the Anglo media when it's not true," said Ravary.
Patriquin also thinks Quebec often gets a bad rap because of the anglo-franco cultural divide.
"Whenever something like this comes up there's always a kneejerk 'oh, Quebec is different, Quebec is retrograde.' I don't necessarily see it that way."
One of the first black Quebec talents to achieve widespread success also believes blackface is different in Quebec.
Normand Brathwaite said he sees no problem with white actors using blackface to portray specific individuals, and expects any white actor impersonating him to darken his skin.
That point of view does not resonate with the director of the Black Theatre Workshop.
"It felt like it was reducing our race, our colour to being a costume, and I think we deserve a little bit more than that," said Armorer.
Ultimately, Armorer hopes this ongoing debate will lead to some good.
"I see this as a great opportunity for everybody to come together and discuss and learn and try to come to a place of mutual understanding."