This week saw South African social media alight with frustration after two white students at the University of Pretoria donned dark make-up and pillows stuffed up the back of their dresses while dressing as domestic workers for a private social event. Responses ranged from outcry at what is perceived as overt racism, to dismissal of the event as a “private prank” with no racial intentions. What has been lacking in South African media coverage and the exchange of opinions over the girls’ joke and their subsequent expulsion from University residences, is any expression of the historical relevance of blackface.
Costumes that include painting your face in black makeup, usually with other characteristics like plump lips, is nothing new. It has deep roots in the worst histories of racial prejudice. In the nineteenth century, actors in minstrel shows in the United States wore blackface in sketches that highlighted the most appalling stereotypes of black slaves. Black actors were not allowed on stage unless they performed in blackface makeup. These blackface minstrel shows involved exaggerated imitations of African dance and music, speeches in African-American “plantation” dialects, and portrayals of black slaves as uncivilized and absurd. While minstrel shows had phased out by the early twentieth century, they were the most popular form of entertainment during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even after the abolition of slavery in the United States, blackface retained prominence in the entertainment sector, appearing in Vaudeville performances and even in Broadway musicals.
Blackface has never been a harmless form of comedy. In it's early forms, it was a tool to reiterate the imbalance of power and prop the ego of slave bosses on American plantations. A cowardly form of comedy, blackface was a way for white slave-owners to dehumanize black people and therefore justify their gross oppression. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, blackface was used to strip black people of agency, to highlight their lack of power, and generally to keep them in a corner. In fact, we could say that blackface formed the popular portrayal of tragic institutional discrimination and social prejudice. This is the reason that blackface is no longer acceptable in a world where we are trying to (or at least claiming that we are trying to) make racism obsolete. This goal should be particularly salient in South Africa, where racism forms the foundations of the most violent and shameful moments of the nation's history.
Wearing blackface is not merely a simple joke, highlighting some of the sillier elements of racial stereotypes in our world today. It is a phenomenon burdened with a history of oppression, violence, and disgrace. Blackface is intimately connected to every lynching in Mississippi, every rubber quota in the Congo, every bullet in Sharpeville. Wearing blackface has the same horrendous implications as wearing a Nazi costume; it is too steeped in the pains of the past to ever be funny.
What has become clear in the exchange over whether the prank by these two South african young adults is harmless or not is that South Africans (and, in fact, southern Africans in general) are ignorant about this history. In fact, I would argue that in some ways southern Africans are completely lacking in any kind of literacy in racial history and ethnic sociology.
When I was in senior school in Harare, I was a history buff. I eagerly awaited my A-level modern world history class, where I found I was fed a daily morsel of an exciting, vibrant,and often distressingly violent world. Gobbling up tales of the Cold War, assessments of the global economic system, considerations of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, I barely noticed that I was not taught anything about the fraught history of my country and that teachers glanced over the topics of colonialism and independence in Africa. To be fair, they had a right to be wary of these topics. In Zimbabwe, particularly in a classroom of a private school with a multi-ethnic student body, tensions round these topics still run high. It is difficult to see how a Zimbabwean teacher could instruct about the Zimbabwean chimurengas (wars of independence) in a way that would be seen as objective by all and that would not turn the students against each other. But, when I arrived in the United States to begin a course of study with a particular focus on politics in sub-Saharan Africa, I resented that this was the first time I was getting to engage with this history in a classroom.
I know that this is only one story, from a privileged, white, private-schooled woman. I know that governments schools in Zimbabwe make an effort to teach some aspects of national history, albeit in a highly politicized way. But, as we can tell from the blackface saga, education in southern Africa is failing to teach that race is a global issue. The Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., Jim Crow, even the abolition of slavery in the Americas, are vitally important historical truths about which southern African students (even educated young people in Universities like Pretoria’s) seem unaware. This is, in my opinion, a tragedy of education as it stands. While dealing with local racialized history can be difficult in classes whose members have parents and grandparents from different sides of the tale and in places where the pain of these racialized pasts are still difficult to navigate, other histories provide the perfect opportunity for young people to grapple with an issue that (despite the desire to ignore it) is still a central part of their societies. If we cannot teach the history of apartheid or of Rhodes, we certainly can teach about the slave rebellion in Haiti, the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, the state of race in Brazil.
Social science and humanities education at the secondary level in South Africa and its neighbouring countries is in desperate need of an injection of global racial history. It should not be the case that something as racially charged as wearing blackface should ever be dismissed as harmless simply because white people do not understand its historical context. Ignorance, after all, is not innocence.
Danielle is on the curriculum development team at the Choices Program.
The views expressed in this article and other pieces by the author are personal to her and do not reflect the views of the organization.
The Choices Program designs curricula for secondary school social sciences education, and focuses on providing students with the skills to become engaged and effective citizens.
Some units from the Choices Program on global racial or ethnic issues: