The Twitterverse is at it again and guess what? This time it’s about race.
An image of two University of Pretoria (UP) students with their faces shoddily painted brown to resemble a black person while dressed as black domestic workers has caused a raging debate on Twitter. Before going any further however, let’s first get some historical context on the term: “blackface”.
Blackface gained popularity in the United States of America in the 19th century when white actors used theatrical makeup to represent black people because black people weren’t allowed employment in the theatre. Blackface gained further popularity with the success of an American entertainment show called The Minstrel Show, which portrayed black people as lazy, superstitious, buffoons and dumb.
The Minstrel Show contributed heavily to the white American public’s conceptions of black people as being racially and socially inferior. These stereotypes persist to this day – hence the anger and divisions caused by this debate. Interestingly, many Hollywood movies continue to portray black people stereotypically yet go unnoticed – from Tyler Perry’s “Madea” to Martin Lawrence’s “Big Mama”. Is it just a case of double standards?
South African Lebo Mashile actually brought this to my attention when she tweeted:
The very first two films created in America depicted #blackface. Racism is at the epicentre of Hollywood in its origins, content & form.
— Lebo Mashile (@lebomashile) August 6, 2014
I must say, I also hold myself accountable in this regard as I have found myself to be quite ignorant to the portrayal of black people as inferior in many instances. Leon Schuster has for years been one of my favorite comedians, but today, I’ve found myself questioning this.
Leon Schuster is easily a case in point of someone who has made millions off of blackface. His 2005 movie, Mama Jack grossed over 4 million US dollars in South Africa. Mind you, the character “Mama Jack” is no different from what these students have done – stuffed posterior to represent a “typically big” bum (Saartjie Bartmen, anyone?) and a white person with his face elaborately made up as black. Mama Jack, however, was enjoyed and watched by both black and white people in high numbers. Are we saying it is okay to paint yourself black and wear domestic worker attire in humour simply because you’re Leon Schuster? I think not.
There’s always two sides to a story though – is it fair to accuse Leon Schuster of being racist? Is it possible to argue that Leon Schuster’s movies aim to document the ignorance that persists from both white and black people who refuse to reconcile after South Africa’s turbulent racial history? Is it appropriate to ‘joke’ about racial issues in a society still as racially divided and unequal as South Africa?
The way I see it, the raging debate we see today is just an indication of how the so called “rainbow nation” is in fact a deeply divided nation – where we are required to sweep our historical wounds under a proverbial carpet of superficial ‘reconciliation’. But anyway, that’s just me, here’s what the twitterverse has to say:
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