Is it a good idea to use blackface to shame racism?

The Dutch filmmaker Sunny Bergman put on blackface to fight the racist caricature Zwarte Piet.

Dutch filmmaker Sunny Bergman in blackface.

The filmmaker Sunny Bergman’s 2014 documentary ‘Our Colonial Hangover’ is scheduled to premiere at the annual international documentary IDFA festival in Amsterdam on November 27th.  The film captures Bergman’s personal search into Dutch blackface character Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), Dutch colonial history and white privilege. Bergman herself has been active in campaigning against blackface. A teaser from the film posted by a Dutch broadcaster (watch here) went live last week and by this afternoon had close to half a million views on Youtube. It has contributed to the buzz for the film’s premiere. The clip shows us Bergman, who is white, dressed up in blackface in a public park in London to see what people’s responses are. Generally the trailer has been well received and it is has been widely shared on social media (not least because Russell Brand makes an appearance). Even Africa is a Country tweeted it.

Some activists have, however, questioned Bergman’s strategy.

Dutch activist and writer Simone Zeefuik, for example, cautions why we should be aware of the framing deployed when it comes to films on race and the larger Dutch media context:

Dutch media is where framing goes to die. This week, it was announced that the movie Dear White People will hit Dutch cinemas. Dutch news site bored us with the headline “Controversial racism satire in Dutch cinemas” but makes no mention of Bergman’s documentary. And what’s more satirical than calling colonialism a ‘hangover’ and implying that, from what I heard about being drunk, we are now entering an era of recovery. The digital version of Dutch newspaper NRC does mention Our Colonial Hangover and calls it “a documentary.” It mentions how Russell Brand reacts when he sees Bergman in blackface and, for reasons only clear to an editorial team that couldn’t be less productive if they were on strike, morphs his “We are scared of your tradition”-quote into “Your tradition surprises us.” In the newspapers and on their sites Bergman’s work, if mentioned at all, isn’t sullied by critical notes or sounds of disapproval masked as ‘casual adjectives’. She, contrary to non-white critics, gets the benefit of the doubt. And with ‘doubt’ I absolutely mean Whiteness.

Dressing up in blackface to tackle racism is a purposely chosen ‘tactic.’ But why and on whose behalf is Bergman (supposedly) tackling racism by dressing up in blackface? The assumption here is that dressing up in blackface for a ‘cause’ or as a ‘critique’ makes it fine. Perpetuating the very racist structures that underlie Black Pete are not as important as ‘proving’ that Black Pete is racist. In the name of ‘critique’ people are unwillingly exposed to blackface just to ‘prove’ how racist blackface is. Here’s activist Ramona Sno:

This woman says she is fighting anti-black racism in blackface? I felt terrible for the black people that had to see this in London, they were confronted with racism because of her.

Such an approach is not only very unsettling it also reflects how messy (supposed) anti-racism politics are in the Netherlands. Anti-racist politics become messier the minute when it comes to the Black Pete debate and it becomes easy to forget that people speaking out today were not the first to do so. People have been protesting for a very long time against Black Pete and racism in the Netherlands (more on this topic soon), however, their histories have been carefully erased. We should therefore continue to question who is allowed to speak on these subjects and who is being heard. Even more so, we should question on whose behalf people speak and what it implicates within anti-racist work.

As many black consciousness thinkers have argued, the idea that people are helping ‘us’, or doing ‘us’ a favor and that ‘we’ should be grateful is a very problematic one. Steve Biko has described the helping white liberal (in the South African apartheid context) as someone who sees the oppression of blacks ‘as a problem that has to be solved.’ Similarly, Black Pete and racism is tackled by the progressive and critical left as something that needs to be ‘solved’ in the Netherlands, without critically engaging with eradicating whiteness and realizing it is actually bigger than Black Pete. What then does the popularity of the trailer tell us about anti-racist politics in the Netherlands? Sno explains:

The fact that the clip was actually widely well-received shows us how also black and non-black people of color are invested in this white anti-racism narrative that is not actually radical or abolishing the system of White Supremacy.

It is important to note that our critique is aimed at what the trailer of the film does. It repeats a ’tactic’ that is an old and widespread one within anti-racist work and sustains an economy of gratefulness – an idea that is very at the root of Dutch thinking about ‘self’ and ‘other’. Within the context of anti-racist work, gratefulness very much implies a constant debt towards the one who is ‘helping’ and is often confused with solidarity. However, we should really not be ‘happy’ or ‘grateful’, when in the name of anti-racism, or in the name of critique, people start using blackface to make a point.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.