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One-third of Americans are OK with blackface on Halloween: Pew survey

Global News logo Global News 2019-02-11 Jane Gerster
Ralph Northam wearing a suit and tie: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks during an interview at the Governor's Mansion, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 in Richmond, Va. The embattled governor says he wants to spend the remaining three years of his term pursuing racial "equity." Northam told The Washington Post that there is a higher reason for the "horrific" reckoning over a racist photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook. © (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via AP) Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks during an interview at the Governor's Mansion, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 in Richmond, Va. The embattled governor says he wants to spend the remaining three years of his term pursuing racial "equity." Northam told The Washington Post that there is a higher reason for the "horrific" reckoning over a racist photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook.

So far, Black History Month has come replete with blackface scandals.

There is the photo on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's yearbook page from 1984 featuring one person in blackface and another dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and though he denies he's in it, he says he did wear blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume that year; the confession from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring that he too wore blackface at a 1980 college party; and the Gucci sweater representing blackface.

Although Gucci quickly pulled the sweater, Northam rejected calls for his resignation and Herring released a statement saying “the days ahead” would indicate whether he would stay on.

At least 34 per cent of Americans are unlikely to be too bothered by Herring’s admission that he wore a wig and brown makeup in order to look like a rapper at a party, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.

The survey, which was conducted before the Virginia blackface scandals erupted (between Jan. 22 and Feb. 5), found that one-third of Americans think blackface is “always or sometimes acceptable” at least when it’s part of a Halloween costume.

“It’s just so shocking in this century that people can't really connect why it would be offensive to the other people,” says Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Creative Industries, who researched the history of blackface in Canada.

“[People] can see the joke in it, but they can’t see how hurtful it would be.”

Blackface is when non-black people, predominantly white people, "darken their faces to create caricatures of black people, including large mouths, lips and eyes, woolly hair and coal-black skin," wrote Jesse J. Holland, a reporter with the Associated Press, in a piece about the racist tradition’s deep roots.

"The performances would stereotype black men and women as ignorant, hypersexual, superstitious, lazy people who were prone to thievery and cowardice."

And, says Philip Howard, an assistant professor in McGill University’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education who has researched and written on blackface in Canada, black communities have “continually objected to it."

READ MORE: ‘Blackfishing’: A problematic trend where people pretend to be black

Slightly more than half – 53 per cent – of those surveyed by Pew Research Center find blackface to be “generally unacceptable” with 37 per cent saying it’s never acceptable. White people were most likely to sign off on Halloween blackface at 39 per cent, whereas 28 per cent of Hispanic people agreed the practice was “always or sometimes acceptable” compared with 19 per cent of black people surveyed.

The survey ought to give people pause, Howard says, because it’s not “some colourblind question.” White people might be statistically more OK with it, but black people are disproportionately harmed by it.

This month, Canadian comedian Mark Rowswell has apologized via Twitter for wearing blackface in high school, while pressure is mounting on Dalhousie University to clarify whether blackface violates the school's student code of conduct. The calls come after the university’s interim president Peter MacKinnon’s recent book called costume parties where white students wear blackface, “just Halloween parties.”

READ MORE: Dalhousie professors ask university to confirm blackface violates code of conduct

Unsurprisingly these incidents “spark intense debate,” according to Howard, “with many attempting to justify it as harmless fun, and in some cases suggesting that those who are offended by it are ‘too sensitive’ or bound by unwarranted ‘political correctness.’”

And yet, he notes, Canada, like the United States, has a history in which white entertainment has been deeply tied to black suffering.

“In the days of slavery, slave owners would force their slaves to sing and to play instruments and to dance for their entertainment.”

But while blackface was culturally rampant during the 1980s when Northam and Herring were in university, Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, told the Associated Press that people can no longer claim ignorance.

And yet, Thompson says, every Halloween, Americans and Canadians continue to dress in blackface.

“They only see their own intentions,” she says, “and often the intention is, ‘Well I’m not doing this to cause offence to a group of people. I’m only doing this because I like Jay-Z.’”

The fact that the response to black communities pushing back against the use of blackface is often not one that recognizes their concerns but rather diminishes them is of great concern, Howard says. (Peter MacKinnon at Dalhousie's response to concern about his blackface passage was to say there was a “lack of proportion” in the responses).

“It says to us there’s actually a disregard for black life and black feeling and black opinion.”

While there's no similar survey in Canada, if there was one, Thompson imagines the results would likely be similar. But she adds that Canadians don't often connect blackface with our own history of racism.

WATCH: Social justice advocate on the value of 'official' recognition of Black History Month

“There is a lot of the black experience that is just unknown to non-black people in Canada,” Thompson says. “The more you don’t know about another group, it makes it easier for you to perform these things because you’ve already kind of dehumanized us.”

– with files from The Canadian Press

The Pew Research Center survey was conducted between Jan. 22 and Feb. 5 as part of a larger study about race, ethnicity and identity that is coming out later this year. Pew analyzed 1,039 responses and weighted the data to be representative of the American population.

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