On New Years Day a 10 year old Leeds United fan found himself the centre of 2013’s first (it saddens me greatly me that I type that believing it will not be the last) footballing race row. Sporting Leeds player El Hadji Diouf’s recognisable white mohican and a blacked up face, pictures of the child with posing with his footballing hero soon began doing the rounds on Twitter with cries of racism on one side and this is political correctness gone mad on the other.
I’d like to make my view on this subject as clear as possible. My skin colour is not a costume. Blacking up is inappropriate and I consider it offensive.
I’m not going to accuse the child involved, his parents or Leeds United fans of racism or harbouring malicious intent towards Diouf or black people. Far from it, I find the counter argument, that this is just a 10 year old boy wishing to dress up as his idol, holds a degree of weight. My problem with that counter argument and blacking up is, in light of the history that blacking up entails with minstrel shows, is why do people believe my skin colour to be no more part of a costume than a hat change? If the boy involved wanted to be El Hadji Diouf, couldn’t he have simply worn a Leeds shirt with Diouf on the back and sported his distinctive haircut to achieve the desired effect? Why is it that when photos of people blacked up materialise, they are defended on the grounds that blacking up was necessary in the name of “authenticity”?
Last year in the lead up to Halloween, a photo was uploaded onto the Facebook “UNILad” page of four men blacked up wearing Jamaican flag onesies sat in a bathtub with the caption “CoolRunningsLADS”. In the following comments opinion varied wildly on the photo with some calling it offensive while others made a number of claims; saying it was flattering to black people that someone would want to dress up like them, or blacking up is no different from wearing drag or dressing up as the Frenchman caricature with onions and a beret. Interestingly, a number of black people commented along the lines of “I’m black and I don’t find it offensive”, as if to suggest the actions of one black person gives authorisation on behalf of the rest of us. (I have no idea where this idea has come from, mainstream media depiction of ethic minorities often suggests that minorities all seem to group together every now and again and agree on things as if they are a hive mind.)
If we existed in some sort of cultural vacuum where only the last 20 or so years counted, blacking up might not be considered any different from dressing in drag or wearing a Groucho Marx moustache. However, much like one of my English Literature teachers once taught me; for every rule there is an exception and context is everything. We don’t live in a cultural vacuum, we live in a world where up until 60 or so years ago you could switch on a television to find a group of people in blackface portraying black people as lazy and dim witted and it would be considered entertainment (some might say that this continues to happen, but that’s a debate for another time). I find it baffling that people can accept that the history of minstrel shows are unacceptable, but at the same time see no problem in blacking up today.
I should mention that both the Leeds United fan and and his father have apologized for the incident and again, I am not accusing them of the same racial hatred that minstrel shows have been loaded with in the past. This is a case of a misguided and possibly ill-informed boy playing dress up gone wrong and Diouf himself was said to be flattered by the act. However, when you do consider the history behind blacking up, surely you can understand why a lot of people, including myself, would prefer it if you just decided to leave the bodypaint in the tin?