‘If you fence off black culture, someone will attempt the same for white culture’
Seán Moncrieff: It’s often difficult to spot the hard border between the culture of one group and that of another
One of hip-hop and rap’s major stars Kendrick Lamar. There are now credible Irish hip-hop artists. Photogaph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Another Halloween approaches. It’s a sugar orgy for kids and for some adults, a time when otherwise dull people attempt to appear more interesting by dressing up as interesting people. Some of those people will wear blackface. Loads of north American politicians seem to have done it; even right-on pin-up Justin Trudeau.
It’s become an annual talking point on US TV. Last year on her NBC show Megyn Kelly wondered why it was such a big deal. It was. She’s no longer on NBC.
It’s a big deal because of how it has been used to portray comic versions of African Americans, often by other minority groups keen to point out that they were not African Americans. Many of the early blackface performers on New York stages were Irish. The practice spread to movies and even to the BBC where the truly bizarre Black and White Minstrel show ran for 20 years. It featured white men wearing black make-up, white women wearing white make-up and comedy sketches, some of which included a puppet leprechaun called Murphy. You can imagine what that was like. Even after its cancellation in 1978, it ran as a successful stage show for another decade.
Apart from the blatantly racist ideas such performances transmit, it’s also part of a wider debate about cultural appropriation: one of those issues that is complex and sometimes contradictory and at times risks being silly. After all, “culture” is something that is constantly evolving and subject to global cross-pollination. It’s often difficult to spot the hard border between the culture of one group and that of another. For instance, hip-hop was a particularly black form of expression, yet it has now traversed the world and embedded itself in the pop cultures of most countries, including Ireland where we have a growing number of credible artists working in the genre. Is that cultural appropriation?
Or is this: blackfishing is a new term describing a practice where (white) social media influencers use make-up and sometimes other means to make themselves appear black. Yet their purpose doesn’t seem to be parodic. The accusation (that they deny) is that they are doing it to win lucrative endorsements which might otherwise go to black influencers. Or that they are playing with the idea of being black without having to deal with the ramifications of it.
Yet if some influencers feel compelled to do this, it would seem as if they think there is something positive about blackness: a benign interpretation might be that they are doing it because being black is more attractive, it’s cooler.
But rather like the idea of the male gaze in the depiction of women in cinema, you could call this an example of the white gaze. To white people, black people are cool. And even if it’s a complimentary view, it’s still a stereotype. Black people (I imagine) don’t see other black people and think: cool. They see other people who look like them.
Admittedly, I’m white and Irish and can only guess at the individual and varied experiences of people who don’t come from the same background as me. But isn’t this, among others things, what culture is for? To overcome otherness, to help different people reach some understanding of what it’s like for others to move through the world? Which is why I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of balkanising culture. And there’s my own story too: I was born in England to a Scottish father and Irish mother and moved to Ireland when I was 12. I’m familiar with the feeling of not quite being one thing or the other.
Certainly, the culture of vulnerable minorities should be respected. But once you start building fences around African American culture or Muslim culture or Indian culture, this will inevitably lead to something similar happening for “white culture”. Some are already starting to try this and we’ve already seen how ugly that can be.