“If we are to engage in discussions about blackface, we cannot overlook its racist history,” OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas has asserted.
Blackface’s origins date back to the 19th century, when white performers painted their faces black, usually with polish or cork. It was a way to mock enslaved Africans in minstrel shows across the United States.
These exaggerated performances often depicted black people as lazy, incompetent and weak. They were meant to entertain white audiences but were demeaning and hurtful to the black community. As a result, blackface helped to reinforce white people’s notions of superiority.
“These negative representations have left a damaging legacy for black people today,” Thomas added.
Even after blackface had fallen out of favour by the turn of the 21st century, popular culture, in particular, art and entertainment, continued to contribute to the negative stereotypes of the black community.
Blackface still occurs every day through racial profiling, labelling in the educational system, patronizing “child protection” policies, and the criminalizing of black bodies and behaviours.
The world has become a place that openly and freely accepts the spread of hate without much consequence.
“These are scary times, but we need to keep the conversations going in order to change the narrative that has been unfairly created on behalf of, not only the black community, but other racialized, as well as Indigenous, communities,” insisted Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer.
They are leading these discussions. Today, racialized and Indigenous communities are shaping the way that their cultures and their languages are portrayed. More importantly, they are writing the future by debunking the stereotypes from the past.
“To use one’s skin tone as a costume, regardless of the colour, is deeply offensive and very hurtful,” explained Kola Iluyomade, Vice-Chair, People of African Descent, to OPSEU’s Coalition of Racialized Workers.
Some of the ways to move forward as a collective include acknowledging the hurt of the past, and then listening to what marginalized communities have to say on how to eliminate the barriers of systemic discrimination.
“Racialized and Indigenous communities have been calling for change for quite some time,” Iluyomade proudly stated. “Let’s stop and listen to what they are saying so that we can move forward together as a community that values all of our cultural and ethnic diversities.”