Bethune: More Carnaval, more blackface
Bethune had its own Carnaval celebration, which was more family-oriented than the one at Dunkerque and yet, was still marred by troupes of people in blackface.
During the parade, the people in blackface tend to chase spectators and smear paint on them (I got some green on me…). I’m still not sure how to react in this situation; I was worried about whether I should even take photos since I didn’t want to imply approval, but I found it so jarring to see hordes of people dressed up in blackface marching through the streets of a town I really love and feel at home in:
It was especially bizarre to have people marching in blackface among so many performers of color; it highlighted how much of a blind spot there is around this, because I find it hard to believe that people would so openly wear it if they realized how blatantly disrespectful the whole spectacle was:
Trying to talk to people about it after was tricky as well. There isn’t a direct translation for “blackface” in French, so I’d usually translate it as “when-people-wear-black-paint-on-their-faces…”, which is obviously cumbersome if you want to have a real discussion about it. Mostly, people just told me that it was a tradition and not malicious.
I remembered seeing some people dressed in blackface when we visited Belgium and had heard about the debate over blackface in the Netherlands around Christmastime (apparently it’s an issue in countries like Brazil as well during Carnaval). In this article, there’s a video of a journalist explaining the use of blackface in Dutch Christmas celebrations to people in Alabama (I was actually surprised that besides the postal worker, everyone’s reactions were gentler than I would have predicted).
Apparently, blackface in its current form is something of an American “export” (as would be the practice of dressing up like a Native American); it’s unfortunate that the practices made their way abroad divorced from their historical context. How can you reattach the context with these practices and highlight how hurtful they can be, especially once they’ve been adopted so thoroughly into local traditions and culture and not considered to be malicious?
So, left with more questions than answers about how to deal with this; I’ve felt like I’ve had some great discussions about everything from gay marriage to feminism in French, but how do you talk about something in another language when there isn’t even a word for it? In the US, even the people wearing blackface are probably aware that there’s something wrong with it, which isn’t the case here; if anything, people seem confused about why it’s such a big deal. How do you communicate that historical context in a different country?
I know that even though France feels like home, I could be considered to be just a guest here; however, part of our purpose here also seems to be sharing our culture, which should include giving some context to American practices adopted abroad (I also just find it hard to shut up about something I see that I know is wrong…). I was able to have a little bit of a discussion about blackface at Dunkerque, but what, if anything, can you do when the interaction is mere seconds or minutes? I know that it’s not others’ responsibility to educate me, but I don’t think that the resources I’ve found have addressed all of these, so any thoughts (or additional links you may know of, especially French ones) would be welcome!