Over the past decade, there’s been a wide consensus in the Western world that blackface makeup and other takes on old, racist minstrel iconography is no longer acceptable. In the odd case in which Americans have momentarily forgotten that fact, retribution has been swift and overwhelming. But certain cultural differences (most of which we won’t try to understand) have kept the ancient and largely ignorant practice alive in other parts of the world.
The most recent example of a foreign country underestimating the outright insensitivity of blackface comes from Australia, where a TV variety show featured a Jackson Five satire composed of performers calling themselves the Jackson Jive. Musician Harry Connick Jr, who was a featured guest on the program, immediately voiced his disgust.
The instant repulsion from America shouldn’t be surprising. Over the past decade, an array of authorities have come down hard on those who have defied the generally-accepted “blackface is not cool” rule. Past offenders have included fraternity brothers, police officers, and even judges. So why doesn’t the rest of the world understand?
In certain countries, it’s hard to say. Particularly in Japan, which has repeatedly relied on the passé minstrel format in its depiction of African Americans. But some countries have had blackface ingrained in their culture just as long as America has. In Holland, local custom tells the story of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a sidekick of St. Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) who is portrayed with the same borderline-racist imagery. In South Africa, a country with its own spotty racial history, locals celebrate Kaapse Klopse (Cape Minstrel’s Carnival), a celebration replete in its own minstrel imagery.
Put simply, certain people don’t consider the practice racist. But is it enough that other people do? In the United States it is, but not quite as much elsewhere.