UOB staff going blackface

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.


23 Responses

  1. “In fact, it’s not just ‘black’ that is deemed racist when it comes to describing Indians, even calling them ‘DARK‘ would get you in trouble.”

    This statement in rubbish. no one has ever gotten arrested for calling an indian a “black” or “dark”. There is no harm in saying that someone is dark-skinned as a matter of fact. Nobody would consider that offensive.

    But many Chinese people seem to think that they are superior to darker skinned individuals. I’m sure you dont like Caucasoids to think they are superior to you because they have double eyelids and you don’t.

    also there are very light skinned indians too. people who dont know that have probably never stepped beyond their front doors.

    • True, no one has gotten arrested but if you read the article again you’ll find one who’s offended by ‘black’ and Ive got a link to another post on ‘dark’ that there’s at least one person who doesn’t like that word either. I’m fine with dark or black-skinned but that’s just my opinion. One has to be wary of context knowing that there are people out there who are sensitive to the way expressions of complexion are used.You shouldn’t, for obvious reasons, go to Little India and say you experienced ‘complete darkness‘ like one ex-MP infamously said.

      Also, I don’t think these Chinese guys were mocking darker skinned folks with a ‘superiority mindset’, but are just unfamiliar with the discriminatory history surrounding ‘blackface’ minstrels. In fact, the fair-skin = superiority issue is a problem among Indians themselves.

      But thanks anyway, I’ll rephrase the rubbish statement.

    • The writer of the article on Sunday TImes who used the example of American taping their eyelid to look single eyelid is totally ignorant, obviously defensive and personal against the issue.

      Most chinese have double eyelids in actual fact.

  2. This episode shows once again that some are getting hysterical esp via FB with our political correctness, sharksfins included.

    Soon, we won’t even be able to say someone’s got “a black face” — meaning that the person is unhappy. 🙄

    Anyway, two links below will show those who believe the UOB kidders haven’t stepped outside their front door something new to think about. Mayb the “black face” bashers haven’t got out of their front doors either.

    In fact some years ago there was a management book with the title Black Face tho I can’t recall the author’s name….



    • Hmm is it thick face black heart? The Blackface festival in China looks kinda fun

    • ” Anyway, two links below will show those who believe the UOB kidders haven’t stepped outside their front door something new to think about. Mayb the “black face” bashers haven’t got out of their front doors either. ”

      what are you talking about ???? what i meant by my statement “never stepped beyond their front doors” is that these people seem pretty ignorant.
      how does that relate to chinese people painting their face black in china? how is mocking dark skin of indian people related to china chinese painting their face black for some festival??

  3. […] or Detritus? When the truth is too important for TR Emeritus to report – Everything Also Complain: UOB staff going blackface – Trash Thoughts: SPH’s Jennani Durai saw the artificial black and turned red – Ravi […]

  4. the racist ppl are usually the ones that FEEL offended… if you didnt think too deeply into it before you act (like those UOB dudes), chances are, you’re not racist…

    • “The racist people are usually the ones that FEEL offended”!?!?
      – That’s the most stupidest thing i’ve ever heard!

      When something IS racist, of course you FEEL offended! Doesn’t make you a racist just because you ACKNOWLEDGE the offending situation!

      In fact, saying such a ridiculous statement, and expecting people NOT to be offended when something is offensive is exactly what a RACIST would say!

      • if you say i am racist, then i am racist… if you say i am a nice guy, then i am a nice guy.. i will be whoever you make me to be, mabel.. just for u…*wink*…

        btw, my best of friends are indians, we drink at pubs many times a week and we play football on wkends.. and of cos in the midst of our drinking/football banter, we crack mungen jokes thambi jokes all the time and have a ball of a time….. this shld be life’s mystery to you such things can happen right?

        well, i’m gonna break my own personal rule to reveal to you the secret of this mystery… just for you, mabel… *wink*

        its because……………. they are singaporean indians and i am singaporean chinese….meaning, we are singaporeans first.. then whatever ethnic group we want to call ourselves when we register our pink ICs. (who gives a damn? i cam be born chinese and register myself as malay/indian/eurasian/insert your fav race…so does that make up who you are?? one word on a stupid card?? labelled for life??? ).. welcome to 2012.. where individualism counts and flourished….. shocking rite? but dun be, mabel… coz there are tons of groups of ppl like my friends out there… and they are playing football week i week out at football fields across the island….. angmos, thambis, mungens, whatever.. u name it.. playing, having fun TOGETHER…. and of cos, cracking jokes…

    • maybe not racist but definitely ignorant. by painting your face black, does it not show that you perceive all indian people as black-skinned??? like as if all indians have one common physical trait, that is black-skin…. which may not be racist per se but surely ignorant.

  5. Uncle Gdy2shoez: Yup, Thick Face, Black Heart (cover my face, all red!!!) 😆

  6. As an Indian let me explain WHY calling us BLACK is offensive and inappropriate. Our indian skin can NEVER be Black. Biologically that simply cannot happen as very dark brown is as dark as we go!

    Hence it is offensive as it’s saying that any colour that is NOT White/Fair, be it beige, to light brown, to coffee colour is termed BLACK! It’s offensive to lump ALL brown skins as being “Black” when it’s totally different colours.

    The second reason why it’s offensive is that to MOST people who are NOT of the brown persuasion, dark skin colour connotes a less attractive feature. Usually. No point arguing this, it is fact for most people. Hence to put ALL brown skinned people as “Black” is to dismiss them ALL as ugly and unattractive! Let’s not even try to be PC about this – as when you paint your face black, you are effectively trying to mock how ugly black/dark skin is!

    And lastly, the third reason why it’s inappropriate to call Indians Black is because Black actually IS a race of people! It is the term used for AFRICANS, not Asian Indians, or any other Brown people! Africans are typically referred to as Blacks, as a RACIAL TERM. Hence Indians cannot be anymore Black/African as a Vietnamese cannot be anymore Chinese just because they share the same skin colour at times!

    • mabel, u use words like “us”, “you”… says how not racist you are….. if you are not for us, you are against us… and are you like some chairman or president of the indian association or something???

      and then you go about another 2 paras going all technical on skin tones and skin colour.. once again proved that you are clearly not racist… (dun understand where this is going actually… maybe i am colour tone blind….)

      3rd para.. representing MOST ppl on their opinion and tastes and definition of attractiveness…. woww… you must be an authority on attraction and taste as well!! please go to the beaches of sentosa every sat and sunday to see how crowded our beaches are with sun bathers….i get pissed off when i cant get a nice spot for myself and my friends… damn!!

  7. This entire racism issue is blown out of proportion. There is racism if there is explicit discrimination of a certain race to be of less inferior. Painting one’s skin to a different color does not depict any distortion to racial harmony unless there is intention to do so.

    In this instance, the reader who sent in the pictures to the news agency and the writer of the article were biased and unfair as they were implying racism in their own volition.

    • “In this instance, the reader who sent in the pictures to the news agency and the writer of the article were biased and unfair as they were implying racism in their own volition.”

      tell that to mabel, roy…..

  8. A spade is a spade, such bull shit.

  9. Even if the Chinese employees were not mocking Indians, which I seriously doubt, I just wonder how they would have felt if Indian employees had gone to the staff dinner “slit-eyed”and worn gumshields with “buckteeth as frequently portrayed by western comedians poking fun at Orientals? Would they, and Chinese people all over, seen it as harmless fun?

  10. 99% of all the Bollywood actors and close to 99.99% of all the Bolly wood actresses are fair/light skinned and at times more white than the yellow Chinese. Just book of Southern Indians dominate Singapore doesn’t mean that all Indians are dark skinned. It shows how ignorant these people are!

    • Sorry for the typos… Wrote that in a hurry and can’t seem to find a way to edit it.

      What I meant to say was:- 99% of all the Bollywood actors and close to 99.99% of all the Bollywood actresses are fair/light skinned and at times more white than the so called “yellow skinned” Chinese people. So the point is the color of the skin really varies across India, and East Indians have more Chinese features, and most of the people can’t really tell apart many people from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland etc from Chinese people from China. While North Indians have more middle eastern features and you can’t tell them apart some times from Afghanis, Iraqis and Iranians.. Even among South Indians color of the skin varies. So I kind of find offensive to associate black/dark color to all Indians in a stereotypical way. Besides how many Bollywood movies, songs have you seen with darker skinned actors? Just because of Southern Indians dominate Singapore doesn’t mean that all Indians are dark skinned. I am a southern Indian and I for one never consider all Indians look like me… And I certainly don’t want all Indians to be stereotyped to a Single color as well… It is like someone asked me, many years back, whether India’s national language is Tamil! It shows how ignorant some people really are!

  11. To answer this “Would critics be less harsh if these jokers merely made their faces ‘dark brown’ ? ”

    Yeah, but not “dark brown”! Had they accurately impersonated Bollywood actors, I don’t think anybody would have had any problems and this would have been hardly brought up for discussion. But to do so, what they had to do was, grow some facial hair and then shave it off leaving the thick green bushy tint esp covering whole cheeks, have double eyelids and paint their faces more pale white with a wheatish tint. That would have made more of an accurate representation! Not painting Dark Brown! Because that’s how the actors in Bollywood movies look like! Try Aamir Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Aftab Shivdasani etc!

  12. Gosh.. it is just a matter of being sensitive and in short, a grown up. No one really cares if you are a racists or not. you can curse any race to death in your closet but discrimination and indulging in “harmless fun/laughs” are inconsiderate actions that are unforgivable.

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