Cheryl Thompson, assistant professor at Ryerson University and author of Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, talks race with Vanmala Subramaniam
Q: I think many people who don’t necessarily think about issues from a racialized lens, have been having trouble understanding exactly why there’s been so much sustained outrage over Justin Trudeau painting his face black, even after he apologized. Can you unpack the history behind why what he did was so offensive and hurtful?
A: The minstrel show, or minstrelsy really originates in the 1830s and 1840s in the north of the U.S., we’re talking about New York, Boston, Philadelphia. It was a theatrical performance where white actors with black paint on their faces would depict the racial relations between African Americans living in the plantation south and those living in the industrialized north. So it was really commenting on the tensions at that particular time in often a demeaning and derogatory way. The depictions were negative — a black person in the south would be portrayed as lazy, for instance. You can see how those stereotypes have trickled into our culture based on the history of minstrel depictions of black folk.
Q: I’ve been trying to understand why some people find wearing black or brown face, and even donning ethnic garbs so entertaining.
A: The more you are removed from a group of people, the more you don’t know them and you only know their caricature. Minstrel shows were started by white men of status, sons of fairly wealthy people in the north of the U.S. They didn’t know many black people but for traveling south on the train and witnessing certain kinds of behaviours and thinking, “Hey that’s how they act.” That’s why it is funny, because it corresponds to all the things they have seen.
Q: But right now though, where is that comedic element from?
A: Look, the buffoon acting black male on a TV show, if you’re not surrounded by black people, if you didn’t have them in your community you will have no way of knowing that that is actually a caricature, that we don’t act that way. You are then going to take what you know of racialized people from film and media as a representation of what they actually are. That’s why, in my estimate, this fascination with portraying people of colour in costume is about distance from the community. You generally do not see working class white people who live amongst black people doing these things.
Q: I want to discuss white privilege because its a term that’s unfortunately become very controversial and loaded. First of all, for those who don’t quite understand the term: what is white privilege?
A: That’s a hard question. But there are a few kinds of it. The first most obvious kind is being raised with societal privileges that benefit white people over non-whites. So perhaps you have expectations that you deserve something because you’ve known what it is like to not instantly get it. A more subtle form is being able to play ignorance to things and expecting people to not judge you. Having the privilege to not know something. I mean, we talk about this example a lot but mass shootings in the U.S. are committed predominantly by white males. But there’s never a crisis in white masculinity because of that. Whereas if a black males shoots up a place, there is an immediate hysteria of “what is going on with black people”. That’s a privilege we are not afforded.
Micro-aggressions are just as damaging as someone beating you up
Q: How do you approach this tension between white people from low-income families, having experienced systemic inequities themselves feeling slighted from being called “privileged”?
A: I’m not denying your truth. But one of the privileges of being white, regardless of class, is that you can always identify as an individual, you never have to claim to be part of a group. I can’t show up at work and say, “I’m Cheryl, just call me Cheryl.” It would be… but you’re black. There would be a reminder. Whereas white people can show up and just be, say “Joanne.” Just an individual.
Q: Some people of colour I know are really not offended by what Trudeau did. They get that it was probably a dumb thing to do, but they’re moving on. What do you make of that?
A: Yes that is very common and unsurprising. I’m not speaking for all people of colour but it is common because you can accept your subordination and accept that this is part of life. What I mean is, on an emotional level perhaps, they haven’t gotten to a point where they pay attention to affliction. The focus is on nobody physically targeting me. But micro-aggressions are just as damaging as someone beating you up and calling you a racial epithet. That’s where people’s awareness needs to get better. Words matter.
Q: I’ve had people tell me, “Look, I forgive Trudeau, he was just ignorant.” How would you respond to this sentiment around ignorance being an excuse of sorts for racism?
A: Being ignorant is a serious thing. When a person or a population is ignorant, it leads to mass genocides. I’m not sure why that term is perceived as neutral. Being ignorant is dangerous.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019