A Lesson on Blackface
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A Lesson on Blackface

Illustration by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

We’re sure they thought it was a good idea at the time.
But intent was not the issue at hand as the University of Toronto Black Students’ Association hosted a town hall meeting on Tuesday, in response to the Halloween party hosted by three student unions on October 29 that saw a group of students—four students in blackface and one in whiteface—dressed up as the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team depicted in Cool Runnings. After one event organizer subsequently deemed the group as having one of the “costumes of the night” in a message sent to more than three thousand invitees on their Facebook page, Torontoist wrote about the costumes, and the fire spread from there.
The town hall meeting was part lecture, part discussion, as professors Melanie Newton, Arnold Itwaru, Cynthia Wesley, and Sean Hawkins joined speakers Rinaldo Walcott and Alissa Trotz, and over five hundred attendees at the Claude T. Bissell Building, for a discussion on racism and the history of blackface.

French Vogue got itself in hot water this month when it posed supermodel Lara Stone in blackface.

“This is a teachable moment,” explained Alissa Trotz, encouraging students to continue the dialogue beyond the assembly on Tuesday night. “Are we going to commit to do the ongoing work that is necessary [to combat racism]?”
Trotz and her colleagues took the opportunity afforded by the town hall to educate the passion-filled, curious, and fervent students who clearly wanted a venue to have their voices heard. After a two-hour litany of speeches, student union representatives delivered their statements, expressing regret that the incident caused hurt.
“I believe it’s very important to shed a light to the history of blackface [and] I personally myself learnt so much from the speakers tonight,” said Francesca Imbrogno, President of the St. Michael’s College Student Union. “Many of us were unaware of what blackface was and it really was a shame that it took a couple of Halloween costumes to bring this issue to more people’s attention. We are eager to learn more about the history of this issue, and very apologetic that people were offended.”
Deryn Robson, the student commissioner who awarded the prize (and who previously apologized in the comments section of our earlier post), also made a statement: “I was not sensitive of the offense that these pictures could have caused…I take full responsibility for the [Facebook] message….I can only be extremely apologetic and reassure that this sort of thing will never happen again.”
While the speakers gave a full-throated explanation on why blackface of any type is unacceptable, it was clear during the subsequent open mic session that some students weren’t buying it. One woman wondered why it was okay to depict nuns during Halloween, even though it was offensive to her as a white, Italian, Roman-Catholic woman. Someone suggested that she start her own forum as well.
In fact, doesn’t the wonderful, post-racial, pat-ourselves-on-the-back-that-Barack-Obama-made-it-to-the-White-House-world we live in mean that we should be beyond this? If blackface is not acceptable, then why is dressing in drag? Where is the line drawn? Is Halloween forever doomed because of political correctness?
The group of students who had dressed up as the bobsled team explained:
“First and foremost we would like to apologize if anyone was offended…Throughout our childhood, Cool Runnings was something we reflected on with fond memories and therefore in the process [of] choosing Halloween costumes, seemed to be a promising candidate. With this idea in mind, we took notice of how the primary cast, consisting of four black characters and one white character, coincided with our group ratio of four white and one black member. This sparked the idea to add another comedic element to the costume, and have the black student go as John Candy and the white students going as the four bobsledders. At this point, several of us was already of aware of what blackfacing was and therefore took out various means of investigation to further our knowledge of the topic and ensure that what we were doing be doing may not be considered similar in anyway. The conclusion that we came to that simply painting our faces dark brown would not be a portrayal of blackface….understand that we did not act in a negative or stereotypical manner [at the party]. We acted ourselves the whole night, and did not internalize the characters.”
But with blackface, no matter how it is used, as Rinaldo Walcott explained, these arguments fall flat.
“I think that in particular [Cool Runnings] became a part of the popular culture imagination of [white] Canadians in a way that [they] took responsibility for that film as though it was somehow an extension of them. And one of the reasons that I think Canadians identified with that film so deeply is because that film weathered something that many white Canadians come to believe strongly—that black people don’t actually belong here. That we are an insertion into a landscape that is not actually an landscape where we naturally fit.”
“For black people who understand this history [of blackface], Cool Runnings was never a funny film; it in fact replicated all of the techniques of blackface. It is in fact one of the ways that we have come to see that blackface does not require painting of blackface anymore. Just look at the work of Marlon Riggs. We know that in North America there is a deep resonance around producing images of black people that make black people look disgusting. Cool Runnings is a milder version of that. So we should ask… why do they remember Cool Runnings so fondly?”

Vaudeville performer Bert Williams, a black man, in exaggerated blackface makeup, circa 1921. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

And that’s the point that BSA president Dawn Samuel wanted to make by hosting the town hall forum. “It is my hope that the majority of people in attendance understand the history of blackface,” Samuel stressed. “We must recognize while although this may not fit the archetype of historical blackface, manifestations of racism change and adapt to time. In light of that, we must recognize while although you may not identify an act or comment a racist, it does not negate the fact that it is, or could be.”
Intentional or not, the students who painted their faces black to resemble black movie characters were in blackface, and that’s an occurrence that seems to be more and more frequent in recent years. Some students argued that this wasn’t really that blackface, because they are simply darkening their skin. But one look at the deeply rooted and violent history of racism and blackface iconography is all it takes to understand that a white person painting themselves to depict a black person shouldn’t.
“How are we going to respond to this?” Trotz asked at the end of the tempestuous but ultimately civil and well-organized evening. Several professors noted that, unlike a similar incident at a Halloween party this year at Northwestern University, the University of Toronto did not send any deans or college presidents to attend. Plus, no official statements have been made by U of T, ultimately leaving the students to work this out on their own. University of Toronto Students’ Union representative Daniella Kyei told Torontoist that she was still pleased with the support of the administration so far, but hopes that they’ll get further involved.
“I’m satisfied thus far,” Kyei told us. “I’m happy that we had two equity officers here and one person from the Vice-Provost office in attendance….Would it be great to have [the administration] here? Definitely, because it would be an actual indication that the administration is taking a stance on this.”
Kyei will continue to liaise with the student unions and the Black Students’ Association as they work towards a common resolution, which—for the BSA—necessitates a printed apology in campus publications.