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Word of the Week: ‘blackface’

 

We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘blackface’.

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You may have heard Gucci’s new balaclava-come-sweater has caused controversy for resembling ‘blackface’. The luxury brand defended the design, explaining it had been inspired by vintage ski masks. We can suppose, at a stretch, a garment that evokes a dehumanising image of blackness, one cultivated by European colonialism and perpetuated during the Jim Crow era could be described as ‘vintage’. In all the outdated, moth-eaten, smelly and obsolete senses of the word, that is.

Gucci was forced to withdraw the sweaters – which cost a hefty US $890 – from their line and issue a public apology after being crucified on social media. Screenshots of the sweater from online fashion retailers, such as the one above, have gone viral. To make matters worse, the sweaters were released during Black History Month in the US, which, as many commentators point out, indicates a need to revisit black history and indeed the historically loaded concept of ‘blackface’ itself. 

Film producer, Tariq Nasheed, commented on the seeming gap in Gucci’s knowledge on Twitter: “So Gucci puts out a sweater that looks like blackface… On Black History Month… and then issues an apology because they didn’t know that blackface images are racist”.

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This monumental fashion faux pas comes only shortly after Prada had to pull its Pradamalia line of accessories for exactly the same reason in December – and Dolce & Gabbana faced criticism for an advert, which – featuring a Chinese model eating spaghetti with chopsticks – exhibited all the trappings of casual orientalism. 

The word ‘blackface’ – currently a breakout term on Google Trends – has opened up discussions about race. Critics have pointed to a lack of diversity and inclusivity in decision-making positions within companies as a reason these blunders keep happening. As Ateh Jewel suggests in The Pool: “If anyone from a diverse, ‘other’ background had seen the plans for these charms land on their desk, it would have been flagged up in a heartbeat.”

The imitation of blackness

As a noun, ‘blackface’ is defined as: “a non-black performer made up to imitate a black person”. The definition also includes “the make-up used by such a performer”.

Though the word’s first known use was in 1868, the practice of ‘blackface’ itself is older, and dates back to the 1830s. 

The act was born out of the theatre, specifically, the minstrel show – a popular form of early 19th century entertainment in which white people donned black makeup and grotesque red lips to caricature and distort the looks, language and character of people of African descent. 

The minstrel shows declined in popularity by the 1890s, though amateur minstrel shows carried on until the 1960s – and British TV programme The Black and White Minstrel Showaired until as late as 1978. 

Though explicitly donning ‘blackface’ is frowned upon today (hence the extreme backlash faced by brands like Gucci) there is still a seeming preoccupation with the imitation or performance of blackness.

From the practice of ‘blackface’ has sprung others like ‘blackfishing’ – the act of appropriating makeup, hair products and surgery to ‘pretend’ to be black – particularly on social media. Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race , suggests that these women are doing more than simply appropriating a look. “The blackfishing women of Instagram are inhabiting a kind of caricature…they represent a stereotype of what the ideal black woman’s body should look like”.

In the Netherlands – a country steeped in colonial history – the practice of ‘blackface’ continues to be upheld via the tradition of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Every Christmas Saint Nicholas’ servant, a white man donned in a frizzy wig and blackface with cartoonish, red painted lips, hands out sweets to the public. “Darkie Day” (you couldn’t make it up) – a midwinter festival in Cornwall, UK – has faced criticism for similar ‘festivities’.

Fashion connoisseurs may be hoping that the latest trend to grace the catwalk, haute couture ‘blackface’, is as ephemeral and short-lived as the rest of them. 

Meanwhile, the understatement of the year goes to Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s president and CEO, who, reflecting on the furore, said: “the lack of knowledge of diversity and the consequent understanding are not at the level we expected”.