(Hayley Mortin / McGill Tribune)

Commentary: Insensitivity towards blackface fuels cultural tensions

a/Opinion by

If you have ever lived in Montreal, you have almost certainly experienced or heard of on-going disputes between francophones and anglophones about language, tuition fees, or even religion. The most recent source of tension between the two groups emerged when an actor used blackface to mimic Montreal Canadiens superstar P.K. Subban at the Théâtre du Rideau Vert (TRV), an action which has been interpreted very differently by the francophone and anglophone media. 

Some claim the profound divide in their reactions is the result of two divergent cultures. However, ignorance of the history of blackface and its offensive overtones is no defence for its practice. As a bicultural and bilingual Quebecer, I feel that the TRV displayed insensitivity in its use of blackface. The Francophone media, too, were callous their subsequent defence of blackface.

Blackface was used in minstrel shows in the U.S. until the early 1900s and was used to portray black men as ignorant, idle, and silly. The New Oxford Dictionary defines blackface as “the make-up used by a nonblack performer playing a black role. The role is typically comedic or musical, and is usually is considered offensive.”

While the practice of using blackface is historically common in French-language theatres in Quebec, the controversy reached a boiling point with the publication of Pat Donnelly’s article in the Montreal Gazette. Donnelly was enraged at the fact that the use of blackface is still prevalent in today’s society, and argued that Denise Filiatrault, the show’s artistic director, should have known better. 

Filiatrault responded with outrage to the negative reviews. She argued that it would have cost much more money to hire a black actor because there wouldn’t have been any other roles for him to play afterwards. Her response clearly highlights the underlying problem that she would not hire a black actor to play any other roles. Nevertheless, Filiatrault denied accusations of racism by reminding the public she has hired many people of colour throughout her career as a director. Because of all the controversy, Filiatrault claimed that she will never have another black character on stage again. This of course did nothing to calm the maelstrom, but only renders a visible minority invisible in her theatre. One can only hope that other theatres will not follow suit.

The francophone media, too, has denied accusations of racism by arguing that anglophones are misunderstanding French culture. Normand Brathwaite, a francophone comedian and actor said in a radio interview, “They don’t know our culture, they don’t understand.” 

Using the time-old ‘culture card’ that “anglophones don’t understand” is not justifiable in instances of blatant racism, especially considering the discriminatory history of blackface. What is interesting in this case is that Brathwaite is, himself, black. This emphasizes the entrenched belief among many francophones, regardless of their race, that blackface is innocuous. 

It is possible that since anglophones tend to be more exposed to U.S. media than French Canadians. Yet Donnelly argues that blackface has been a part of Quebec’s society for nearly 30 years. Given the ready access to historical information about the culturally offensive background of blackface, francophones have no excuse not to be informed and sensitive to the fact that blackface is highly discriminatory and has no place in their theatres.