Strengthening resistance against contemporary Canadian blackface


Published: 31Oct2017
By McGill Reporter Staff, Oct. 19, 2017

On Oct. 23, Philip S. S. Howard, Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, Faculty of Education, will give a keynote presentation on the history of contemporary Canadian blackface and how to challenge it. It’s part of a four-campus art and speaking tour starting at McGill, going to Queen’s, Wilfred Laurier and the Ontario College of Arts and Design University.

Professor Howard, in collaboration with curator and visual artist Camille Turner, will challenge “blackface” in a research knowledge mobilization initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.  It is an all day art exhibition with workshops, performances, followed by Professor Howard’s keynote presentation, Hide and See: Engaging the in/visible presence of black face in Canada, at 5:30.

Throughout the day at various locations around McGill, the work of Turner and four socially-engaged artists commissioned by the project will address blackface and the history of racism in Canada. “Blackface” is defined as the act of darkening one’s skin in an attempt to impersonate a black person.

“Blackface minstrelsy was an entertainment form that expressed nostalgia for slavery and attempted to portray slavery as a benevolent institution,” says Professor Howard. “Though Canadians like to think of minstrelsy as an American phenomenon, Blackface was a very popular form of entertainment among both amateurs and professional entertainers in Canada from shore to shore.

“Few Canadians know, for example, that the writer of Canada’s national anthem, Calixa Lavallée, was a renowned blackface minstrel.  It is difficult to get more Canadian than that,” says Professor Howard. “The ignorance or willful forgetting of the history of blackface in Canada lies at the heart of the phenomenon of contemporary Canadian blackface.”

Howard says the discussion of blackface is still very much relevant because it is recurring phenomenon.

He notes that blackface is frequently used by Quebec comedians, and is a regular feature of Radio-Canada’s annual year-end television show, Bye Bye.

In Montreal alone there have been instances of students wearing blackface at HEC Montreal, during the 2012 student protests, and at McGill.

“Black communities regularly assert that these instances of blackface are problematic given their racist roots in Canadian minstrelsy, and the poisoned environments they create in the present, but this message often seems to fall on deaf ears,” says Professor Howard.

Howard and other scholars who study racism in Canada use the term “Post Racialism” to describe current attitudes.

“Postracialism refers to the ideological climate that makes it possible to juxtapose racist expression with claims to having transcended racism.  Canadian national narratives are post racialist in this sense, allowing Canadians to claim to be non-racists who are ‘over’ race, while the evidence of anti-Black racism abounds,” he says. “Systemically and institutionally ingrained anti-black racism is evident with racial profiling, endangerment, and incarceration of black persons that starts in elementary schools; the erasure of Black histories from narratives about Canada and from school curricula; the disproportionately high rate at which black children are removed from their homes to become wards of the State, the disproportionate numbers of black people, particularly black women, who are unemployed, under-employed, and living in poverty, to name a few indicators.”

Howard says Canadians need to listen more carefully to, and take more seriously, the voices of black people.  “The general denial of historical and current anti-Black racism erodes the possibility of truly hearing black peoples’ critiques of blackface, and of placing it in its true Canadian historical context.”

Hide and See: Engaging the in/visible presence of blackface in Canada; Monday, Oct. 23, 5:30-6:30 p.m. Jack Cram Auditorium, room 129, Education Building (3700 McTavish).