Race Matters

‘Blacking up’, past and present: explanations are not justifications


Living in a society where people hold different beliefs and express varying cultural practices does not typically lead to conflict. In most cases such differences can be easily celebrated and (should) cause no discomfort among people in Britain today.


For some the mere fact of cultural difference is taken to result in conflict or as a barrier to people working towards common goals. Such views go against the grain of millennia of geographic mobility and cultural mixing, but there are a rare number of cases where genuine difficulties emerge.


In modern Britain the most common examples are those where minority practices are deemed to infringe the liberty of some of their group’s members, particularly women. The obvious harm and wrongness of practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation but also the clear majoritarian pressure to change them has resulted in recent government legislation on both issues.


Less frequently noticed are practices that are associated with a seeming majority but that harm minority groups. One such case is that of ‘blacking up’. Among its defenders, ‘blacking up’ is variously explained as a 16th or 17th or 18th century practice that has nothing to do with racism but is a deep and important tradition in Britain.


Defences of ‘blacking up’ take three forms. The first is to deny any racist association with the practice, namely by associating it with some past history that was clearly non-racist. There are a variety of difficulties with such an account, the first being that there appear numerous differing versions as to the origins of ‘blacking up’. Given these various stories of origin, it is scarcely credible that viewers of the practice feel a deep and significant connection to an ancient cultural practice that resonates across generations. But the biggest problem for the ‘historical nonracist defence’ is that it assumes that the meanings associated with an act in the 16th century are more significant than the much more recent associations of racist stereotypes about black people.


A second defence is more bullish, and rather insists that whatever people say about ‘blacking up’ almost no one really believes it is harmful or abusive to black people. Rather, a  motivated cabal of politically correct thought police have agitated against a practice that most ethnic minorities or black people feel is utterly harmless. It is difficult to know if such a defence is genuine or serious, given the intemperate language affirmed by its proponents. Do such defenders of ‘blacking up’ really believe that no black parents feel ashamed on seeing such shows with their children, or that their children don’t ask their parents why such depictions continue? Do they genuinely imagine that racist stereotypes about black people have disappeared or that it’s only in people’s heads? Or perhaps they paternalistically believe that they know better about what black people do or should really think.


A final defence comes in two forms, one more dismissive of minority concerns, and one seemingly more conciliatory. This defence notes the concerns of black people, but suggests this is all done in good fun, or, more affirmatively, that ‘blacking up’ is a crucial English or British (or Dutch or German) tradition that trumps these mere minority concerns.


Such a defence is typically only implicit, but it appears regularly amongst those pining after a Britain in which diversity was limited to the Oxbridge colleges one attended or the weekly sermons of individual vicars. The principled point is that there may be cases where a cultural practice is so crucial to a nation’s sense of self that giving it up will result in some people feeling that a valuable practice and meaningful part of their identity has been lost.


Yet it is hard to imagine such cases in reality, and harder still to see ‘blacking up’ as a possible candidate. Is it really plausible that ‘blacking up’ is so crucial to an English or British sense of national identity that the clear indignities it inflicts on black people should be viewed as a reasonable cost to uphold that tradition?


On reflection most defenders of the practice of ‘blacking up’, particularly if they spoke to Black British parents and children, would probably recognise that whatever traditional value it affirms comes at a high cost. Reflecting further on the issue suggests a wider point that is again often only implicitly affirmed: that those who can trace their ancestry back over the centuries have a greater claim to Britain’s institutions and identity, and that those of us who arrived more recently must simply accede to this point, and allow leeway to whatever identities have existed over the past centuries (including, presumably, colonial benefactor).


Whatever the political mileage in tapping into such sentiments, Britain’s decision-makers should be much more wary in doing so, if they wish to see an economically and socially successful Britain in the future. Around one in four people starting school are now ethnic minorities, but such pupils cannot expect equal opportunities in the future until we eliminate continued discrimination in the labour market. Britain's leaders must reject the notion that because a practice dates back centuries it is clearly justifiable or does relatively little harm. Explaining the history of a tradition does not defend it, nor can practices - however ancient - that tap into racist stereotypes about the inferiority of black people ever be justified.


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