I woke up this past Saturday to Quebec journalist Sophie Durocher once again defending the use of blackface in an annual vaudeville-type French show “2014 revue et corrigée” at Montreal’s Théâtre du Rideau Vert.
Not only did she insist that no harm was intended or done, but the tone of the article was so rife with denial and arrogance, it made me cringe.
This isn’t the first time Quebec’s francophone entertainment industry has made blackface part of the act, or the first time francophone columnists have attempted to downplay its racist undertones. This denial persists, despite repeated criticism by many Quebecers.
According to Durocher, blackface isn’t offensive; it’s acting. Blackface is nothing more than a disguise. “Du dé-gui-se-ment”, she says, as she syllabically breaks it down for us, because people who disagree are obviously slow and must be mocked.
But blackface isn’t just acting.
Blackface harkens back to the days of U.S. and British minstrel shows in the 19th century, when the stereotypes of the ignorant, happy-go-lucky “darky” on the plantation with the exaggerated big lips, blackened face and nappy hair played a significant role in promoting and cementing racist images, attitudes and perceptions of black people as lazy, stupid and subservient.
Minstrel shows go back to a time when white people openly viewed black people as inferior, and they drew on images directly associated with slavery and segregation. In other words, blackface is nothing like putting on a pearl necklace to imitate former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois or a wig to mock former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, as Durocher alludes in her column. Neither the pearls nor the wig have negative associations. And blackness is an identity, not an accessory.
Publicly defending blackface has consequences. What ends up happening in today’s Quebec is that P.K. Subban fans dress up in blackface to catch a Habs game (it’s happened elsewhere in Canada too), HEC Montréal university students dress up in blackface and talk in mock Jamaican accents as a “tribute” to sprinter Usain Bolt, and a young girl is threatened with expulsion from school because her mother objected to the presence of blackface in a Christmas play.
The popular argument in la Belle Province tends to be that because Quebec does not have a history of slavery and institutionalized racism comparable to that of the U.S. , blackface has no negative connotations and no malice associated with it here.
If a historical wrong has to be personally experienced for one to empathize, then because I have no personal association to Nazism and the holocaust didn’t affect me, it’s okay to walk around with swastikas on my body, right? After all, some of my best friends are Jewish.
Despite the comforting lies we repeat, Quebec ( like the rest of Canada) most certainly has a history of slavery and racism. Sure, the number of slaves in Canada was smaller than in the U.S., and Canada’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade appears minor contrasted with what took place in the U.S. South and colonial Caribbean, but slavery still took place here.
When the British took over Canada in 1760, 6,604 slaves lived in New France. Most were Panis (representatives of First Nations), and a minority were blacks, but they were most certainly all slaves.
And the majority of slave owners, you ask? Why, they were French Canadians. More than 85 per cent of them, according to a census from the time. In fact, when Marcel Trudel identified 1,509 slave owners, only 181 were English. (See Robin W. Winks’ The Blacks in Canada: A History for more.)
In 1799, while discussions were slowly taking place to do away with slavery in Quebec, Joseph Papineau (yes, Louis-Joseph Papineau’s father) presented a petition to the Assembly, signed by Montreal slave owners to uphold legal recognition of slavery. The bill was defeated, but slavery technically still remained legal in most of Canada until 1834.
So, guess what, people? We don’t get to say that slavery wasn’t a thing here, and we don’t get to pretend we’re morally superior and our history is so unblemished that we can mock minorities in good faith and have them not be affected by any of it, because we’re so much better than that.
Because we’re not.
The main reason mass-scale slavery was not established in Canada is that the country did not have immense plantations requiring sizable numbers of unpaid labourers (slaves) to function. In other words, Canadian agriculture and commerce basically had no great need for them.
Now, let me be very clear. I don’t find Quebec particularly racist or, at the very least, no more racist than the rest of Canada. What distinguishes Quebec, however, is the incessant need by mainstream French media to downplay blackface as harmless fun and dismiss legitimate grievances against it as unreasonable whining.
According to national studies and cross-country polls, one in six Canadians has experienced discrimination based on race. Throw discrimination based on religion into that mix, and we have a long way to go towards being that post-racial, post-religious society everyone claims we live in.
We simply can’t afford to operate in a cultural vacuum where we choose not to consider the context and historical associations of certain actions and imagery. It is supreme arrogance, stubborn unwillingness and white privilege of the worst kind to insist that blackface isn’t hurtful and offensive when members of the black community tell you that it is.
No one cares whether your intentions are harmless and well meaning. No one cares that you’re “past racism” and that you feel you shouldn’t be accused of it because you are blissfully living in a world where that’s not an issue with you. White privilege allows you that disconnect and the luxury of thinking that.
It’s not up to some white person to decide what is considered offensive and hurtful and then to laugh it off and downplay all attempts at being educated. It’s up to the group that has historically been oppressed to let us know, and then it’s our responsibility to listen.
If women tell you that street harassment makes them feel threatened and uncomfortable, you men don’t get to decide that it doesn’t. If members of the gay community tell you that disparaging jokes about their sexuality demean them, you straight people don’t get to say they’re made only in jest. If members of the black community tell you they have a problem with blackface, you owe it to them to listen, acknowledge and change your behaviour.
This isn’t about overzealous attempts to be politically correct or to appease a few complainers, as Durocher and others like her, have attempted to make it look. This is about acknowledging that blackface is a relic of the past and needs to be banished.
Racism is alive and well. Racial profiling and discrimination happen all the time. And perpetuating, and then defending, harmful stereotypes that mock and belittle blacks — all for the sake of a few awful jokes — makes a mockery of a society that claims to be evolved and better than that.
Quebec aims to be distinct? This is not the way to do it.