Blackface is insulting

The organizations Generation 2.0 for Rights, Equality & Diversity and ANASA Cultural Center for African Art and Cultures filed a complaint with the Greek National Council for Radio and Television regarding the content of the television show “Be Happy” of Katerina Kenourgiou which aired on the channel Open Beyond on Friday 25/01/2019. Particularly, in a sketch as part of the column “Dilemmas”, a white actress used black face and body paint to portray a woman of African descent. As if that were not enough, in order to portray the African woman, the actress was dressed in a tight leopard outfit, further perpetuating the stereotype of the hypersexualized black jungle woman. An excerpt of the sketch was also screened on Nikos Moutsina’s show (“For the company”). In both shows the presenters and their co-hosts seemed to be entertained by the event, while Mr. Moutsinas even accompanied his commentary by dancing on set to the infamous song by Chila “Black”.

Why did we not find the humour in this particular incident?

Applying dark makeup to one’s face in order to portray a person of a darker skin color is not an innocent act. This practice is called “Blackface” and is in fact a highly offensive tradition of racial stereotyping, which has played and till this day, continues to play a significant role in disseminating racist perceptions and attitudes towards black people worldwide.

Popularized by American minstrel shows of the 19th century, blackface began as a form of entertainment where white people painted in black paint performed demeaning caricatures of black people in order to openly and deliberately ridicule them. This is the reason why the makeup and overall appearance of blackface are deliberately exaggerated and unrealistic. It is important to consider the historical and social context of those times of slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade. Within this context, blackface was a deliberate part of the systemic social and political repression, and was used to subordinate people of African descent and cultivate the racist motive which then “justified” the violence against them.

Nowadays, the use of blackface for the most part is socially condemned and has consequences, as we have seen recently with American politician Mike Ertel, who was forced to resign after photos from 2005 of him in blackface surfaced. Numerous other such examples exist.

Blackface, however, is not limited to the American context. Europe is also complicit, see for example Zwarte Piet is Racisme, the protest movement against Zwarte Piet, a Dutch tradition in which blackface has a protagonist role.

In the Greek context, as we know very well, blackface has not been challenged and continues to get a free pass, for example during the carnival season, as well as on national television. However, it does not cease to be an extremely offensive and racist act and is never and neither will it ever be an acceptable way, of portraying a black person. What is more, having no knowledge of American history or even the history of blackface is not an excuse. Anyone can understand even without the specific context that this practice is degrading.

How could the specific show have avoided all of this? First, they could simply have hired an actress of African descent. Τhere are black actors in Greece! Second, even if they could not hire a black actress, something Ms. Kenourgiou pointed out, well then there are other ways of impersonating a black person without humiliating them.

We condemn the show Be Happy and the channel Open Beyond for the racist portrayal of an African person and we demand a public response from those responsible.

Those who choose to use blackface are complicit in an extremely racist act of dehumanization and in perpetuating stereotypes which reinforce the notion that black people are appropriate targets of ridicule, taunts and inhumanity. The mere thought that this specific practice is directly linked to the daily practices of hatred and oppression of an entire race should be enough to stop.