From ‘Seeing red over blackface photos’, 12 Feb 2012, article by Jennani Durai, Sunday Times
Several Chinese employees of United Overseas Bank have raised eyebrows online after posting pictures of themselves in ‘blackface’ at a Bollywood-themed staff dinner. Pictures of last Friday’s event at the Fairmont Hotel were posted on social networking site Facebook yesterday. At least three men are pictured with their faces painted black, presumably because the event was Indian-themed and Indians have darker skin.
‘Blackface’ is widely seen as racially charged, especially in the United States. It originated as a form of theatrical make-up for performers to act out caricatures of dark-skinned people.
…A Chinese reader, who e-mailed the pictures to The Sunday Times, said she found them extremely offensive. ‘It’s one thing to wear a traditional costume to a Bollywood- themed dinner, but another thing altogether to paint your face black,’ said the reader, who wished to remain anonymous. She said the pictures were offensive because they were ‘appropriating someone else’s ethnicity and treating it like entertainment‘.
And she was shocked at the captions and comments on the pictures, in which friends of the men said their get-up was ‘hilarious’. ‘All these people wouldn’t like it if a bunch of American employees went to a Chinese-themed dinner and put double-sided tape on their eyelids to make them single-eyelids,’ the reader said.
…Counsellor P. Dinesh said painting their faces black was ‘no different from referring to someone of Indian descent as ‘black’ which is thoroughly unacceptable in any Singaporean context‘.
Still others acknowledged that there was nothing malicious in the intent of the men, but that it was a poor decision.
Ms R. Yasotha, who works in publishing, said her first reaction was that the men had ‘clearly never had any Indian friends’. ‘They just wanted to have fun, so I’m not going to be up in arms about it, but it’s idiotic and juvenile,’ said the 28-year-old.
One has to be careful about using colour references, or even shades of ‘blackness’, here. The offensive minstrel show of the past was aimed at actual Blacks or African-Americans. It also explains why there’s a ‘White Chicks’ movie but not ‘Black Chicks’. Similarly, UOB’s cosmetic caricature at a BOLLYWOOD theme party is taken as a racial insult to, as what the reporter euphemistically states, ‘DARKER’ skinned Indians. In fact, it’s not just ‘black’ that is deemed offensive to Indians like P.Dinesh in the above article, even describing some as ‘DARK‘ would get you in trouble. On the other hand, the term ‘FAIR-skinned’ on a White person is not just an acceptable statement of fact anymore, but has become a universal compliment, even for non-Whites. The most successful Bollywood icons also happen to be ‘fairer’-skinned than what these guys were trying to depict anyway. It’s probably unfair to judge these guys as ‘never having had any Indian friends’. In fact, if your best friend happens to be Indian and even he finds Chinese ‘blackface’ funny, all the more reason for you to pull it off.
If you were mugged and asked to describe your assailant to the police and know for a fact that he has genuinely ‘black’ skin, but are uncomfortable with using ‘black’, is it then socially acceptable to refer to him as ‘dark-skinned’, when this could very well imply a very tan Chinese, or Filipino/Myanmese/Malay? How far can a non-Indian go, then, to make a spectacle without overdoing ethnic stereotypes? You can dress like an Indian, but not make your face up to look physically like one or even sound like one. Companies shouldn’t hold a ‘Bollywood’ theme party, but rather a ‘Sari, Bindi and Dhoti’ costume party, which sounds as much fun as a Parents and Teachers Get-Together on Racial Harmony Day.
Some famous White actors have dolled themselves up to look like Indians in the movies, such as Sir Alec Guiness of Obiwan Kenobi fame as mystic Godbole in A Passage to India. (He also played an ARAB in Lawrence of Arabia) The quintessential Indian, Gandhi, was played by Indian/English/Russian Jewish thespian Ben Kingsley. Legendary comedian Peter Sellers poked fun at the Indian stereotype in 1968′s The Party. Mike Myers, obviously inspired by Sellers, ravaged Hinduism in The Love Guru despite keeping the colour of his face intact, but the movie was still allowed for screening here. From these examples and Robert Downey Jr’s critically acclaimed portrayal as a ‘Black’ soldier in 2008′s Tropic Thunder, it seems that even the West has ‘lightened’ up (hurr hurr) to anything resembling ‘blackface’. Or it just means that you can get away with darkening your face for dramatic or satirical purposes if you’re a Hollywood actor, but not if you’re an ordinary person fooling around at a Dinner and Dance, whereby you’ll be accused of being culturally ignorant, ‘idiotic’ and ‘juvenile’. Would critics be less harsh if these jokers merely made their faces ‘dark brown’ ? Ironically, these guys may be wishing that they had painted their faces ‘blacker’, so that they would be less recognisable from the photo. They also wouldn’t be BLACKlisted if not for FACEbook.
A commenter on this blog highlighted a genuine celebrity ‘blackface’ which was not picked up by the media, when Glenn Ong charcoaled his face to look like the late King of Pop at a Mediacorp ‘Retro Bash’ event last year (Would he draw less flak for ‘whitening’ his face instead, white being the colour of the older Michael Jackson’s face?). A familiar brand of toothpaste was also slammed for its depiction of blackface minstrels in the late eighties. Although the original ‘Darkie’ changed its name TWICE to DAKKIE and then the My Little Pony-sounding DARLIE as we know it today, the Chinese name remains, literally, Black Man’s Toothpaste, which has more racial intonations than its current English version suggests. Note how the ‘blackface’ logo was made ‘whiter’, when it’s not so much the original face (which to me looks more like a Black man than a White face painted black), but the name of the product that’s the problem.