When blackface isn’t blackface

Opinion: Martin Patriquin on the controversy over Theatre Rideau Vert’s portrayal of P.K. Subban

You may not know it, but two of the more enduring and egregious racial tropes have lived long lives in the aisles of your local grocery store. Aunt Jemima’s smiling face has adorned boxes of pancake mix and the like for 125 years. Skip over a couple of aisles and you’ll find the bow-tied Uncle Ben, the face of one of the world’s most popular brands of rice. If you’re feeling spendy, take a jaunt to an imported foods store and pick up Banania, France’s popular brand of chocolate milk. Banania’s chief marketing image is that of a wide-nosed, big-lipped black man wearing a fez and a toothy grin.

These images are off-putting for the same reason. They aren’t representations of real people—though Uncle Ben was based on a rice farmer—but caricatures of blacks’ traditional roles in white society: a comforting presence, a smiling subservient, a reassuring slave. That the trademarks (“mascots” is perhaps a better term) still exist is troublesome, to say the least.

I bring all this up as pretext to the racial kerfuffle du jour in Quebec. Last month, Théâtre du Rideau Vert parodied an array of Quebec notables for its annual year-end send up, Revue et Corrigée. Among those notables was Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban. The skit in question had Subban sitting beside some nameless oaf, bragging in broken French that he made $36,000 per period “even if he didn’t score.” That the skit wasn’t particularly funny was hardly the crime; it was that the actor portraying Subban, a second-generation Canadian whose parents hail from Jamaica, was white. As such, this actor painted his face black and donned a wig for the bit. In an interview with La Presse, Rideau Vert’s artistic director pled budgetary constraints. “We didn’t have the means” to hire another actor for a 30-second sketch, she said.

The outrage was swift and righteous. Critics, like the Montreal Gazette’s Pat Donnelly, were mostly appalled. Seeing a white person portray Subban “sent me down memory lane to the dozen of Quebec shows I’ve seen featuring blackface over the years,” Donnelly wrote in an otherwise positive review in which she labels Subban “an easy black target.” This week, Diversité Artistique Montréal scolded the theatre for peddling racial caricatures. “Can you imagine a humorous skit in which a Star of David is worn on a shirt in referring to the Jewish community? Or a swastika to mock the German community?” reads the letter.

Well, yes, actually. As Charlie Hebdo has shown, even the most sacred of cows can be hilariously slain when the right person is behind the pen. But Rideau Vert sketch wasn’t even doing this. Unlike Uncle Ben et al., the sketch didn’t boil down an identifiable group to crass stereotype. Rather, it portrayed a living, breathing human being who happens to be a hockey superstar, and who happens to be black. (And as one of only 12 black NHL players, Subban himself is something of an anti-stereotype.)

Compare this with, say, Al Jolson hamming it up as the archetypal black jazz singer, or the scads of Dutch who celebrate Christmas by dressing up as an impish minstrel named Black Peter. Or compare it to the Université de Montréal students who in 2011 went to a football game as a gang of Rastas, complete with black face paint and novelty-sized doobies. Or compare it to Anna Robinson, the black actress (a “large, gregarious woman with the face of an angel,” according to the company spiel) who toured the States as Aunt Jemima in the 1930s—a rare occasion of a black person doing a blackface bit to profit a white-owned business. Ditto Uncle Ben and the Banania guy, who further prove you don’t need face paint to demean an entire race. These are the true examples of blackface, whereby an entire race is reduced to some preconceived, negative notion by way of face paint and either malice or cluelessness.

Somewhere along the line, the definition of “blackface” extended from the malevolent practice of race baiting to include any non-black actor portraying a black person. This arbitrary definition became an unwritten rule. Enforced by a well-meaning mob, this unwritten rule effectively and frightfully could prevent someone from doing their job based solely on the colour of their skin. Is that really a good idea?

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