Images of Justin Trudeau captured in 2001 dressed in a turban and white robes, with his face, neck and hands all covered in dark brown makeup – a practice known as blackface or brownface - at an Arabian Nights themed gala streamed across international media last year, shredding his reputation as the liberal poster boy and exponent of multiculturalism and diversity. After a few more images surfaced, Trudeau refused to rule out the existence of more pictures of himself wearing blackface as he said white “privilege” had blinded him to the racism of the hurtful entertainment device with roots in 19th-century America. But blackface isn’t only used by white performers – it is even an issue in countries that are themselves the object of bigotry, and in the racially diverse Middle East and North Africa, the centuries-old comedy trope is alive and well.
The latest racism scandal to ripple through Arab pop culture involved a Kuwaiti makeup-artist and beauty influencer with over 2 million Instagram followers who was accused of perpetuating racism after she uploaded a video on New Year’s Eve where she deepened her skin several shades darker with cosmetics as she lip-synced to 1985 track We Are the World. The caption reads: “No matter where you are from or what you believe in, we are all children of this world, and we all share it together equally. Beauty comes in all shapes and colours, so lets love each other and celebrate our unity.”
It sounds absurd but sadly, this isn’t a bad joke: A video involving racially hurtful practices was intended to denote a celebratory relationship between peoples and foster unity. But what’s even worse is that after Sultan was inundated with comments denouncing her blackface, she did not back down on her poor creative choice. Instead, she refused to take down the video in question and posted another photo of herself in blackface and attempted to justify her actions by insisting that she is not racist and that the posts “show her skills”.
One twitter user said, “It’s funny how hundreds of actual black people have said that this is racist and offensive yet Ghadeer Sultan and many non-black people have said ‘nope, not racist, this is art’… this is blackface, whether you do it for comedy or art.”
Meanwhile, others argued she had done nothing wrong, asserting that blackface is a “Western concept” and therefore could not have been intended as a racist insult.
“Just a reminder, the Western concept of black face is not applicable to Kuwait. So Ghadeer did nothing wrong and she did not intend to offend anyone. Stop exaggerating and moaning about racism if you don’t know the history and meaning of black face in the west as opposed to Kuwait!” said another Twitter user.
This incident has drawn attention to the prevalence of blackface in Arab pop culture and exposes an uncomfortable truth of widespread ignorance surrounding racism and anti-blackness in society. Prof. Eve Troutt Powell, from the University of Pennsylvania, told Majalla that when she read on social media defences from Sultan and others that blackface is not racist, she worried that “she and others do not understand what exactly racism is.”
A PERVASIVE PRACTICE
This is far from the first time Arab public figures have caused controversy with their portrayals of other ethnicities. On television networks and movie screens, rarely will you see dark-skinned or black people on air, instead they are routinely represented by lighter-skinned performers who darken their faces in comedy skits to wring cheap laughs from demeaning stereotypes and prejudices.
Last spring, Shaimaa Saif, a well-known Egyptian comedian and presenter, sparked anger by using blackface in a sketch and mocking Sudanese people. Speaking in a crass imitation of Sudanese Arabic and wearing blackface, Saif chatted to Egyptian commuters on a bus as part of a sketch aired on the programme "Shaklabaz". As part of her pranks, she annoyed minibus passengers, attempted to steal their phones, and pretended to drink alcohol. The footage was broadcast by the Egyptian affiliate of MBC, one of the largest entertainment channels in the region, and offended many in the Sudanese community who voiced their anger at Saif online for her appearing in blackface and demeaning Sudanese women. Saif responded by saying that nothing bad was intended.
In an interesting contradiction, the same comedian criticised her co-star on a talk show called “Nafsana” for using the Arabic equivalent of the N-word when referring to African-American music artists, stating that the term is racist and shouldn’t be used. Yet her co-star, Entisaar, an Egyptian actress and television presenter, insists on repeating the word.
In December 2018, Bushra, an Egyptian actress and singer, released a video clip showing a man in a blackface referring to Egyptian singer and actor Mohamed Ramadan who is dark-skinned. Popular Lebanese singer Myriam Fares also appeared blackface in a recent music video.
During Ramadan 2018, two of Egypt’s most prominent comedians Samir Ghanem and his daughter Amy sported fake dreadlocks and darkened their skin throughout the TV series “Azmi we Ashgan” and used racist language, including the N-word. In a popular 2005 Egyptian movie ‘Eyal Habbeeba’, when the lead character, Memmes, is looking at portraits of his uncle - who is seen wearing thick black makeup - and his family, he mocks them by asking: “Did someone burn this apartment before or what?" His co-star Bejama then adds, “You should have processed the photos before hanging them." In a Kuwaiti comedy TV series “Block Ghasmara”, an entire episode was dedicated to the cast wearing blackface while playing up to offensive stereotypes of Sudanese people as lazy and cynical.
These are just a few examples of the grossly inappropriate, misguided and distasteful scenes echoed in Arab pop culture, and the reason these representations continue to endure pervasively is symptomatic of a lack of awareness of the charged and complicated history of blackface, racism, and the consequences of racial bigotry.
IGNORING HISTORY, DENYING RACISM
Blackface began in the US after the Civil War as white performers called minstrel performers, adorned their faces with coal-black makeup and outlandishly red lips, as well as woolly wigs, played characters that demeaned and dehumanised African Americans, helping to confirm notions of superiority based on race. It soared in popularity during an era in America when demands for civil rights by recently emancipated slaves triggered racial hostility. African-Americans also performed in blackface given it was the only way to be in the entertainment industry. Today, because of blackface’s historic use to denigrate people of African descent and its inextricable links to systematic and social and political repression, its continued use is still considered racist. Still, the negative stereotypes of African Americans and mocking of dark skin have persisted in recent decades. A study last year by US think-tank Pew Research Center found that a third of Americans believe it is not wrong for a white person to wear makeup to appear back. TV personalities, politicians and even fashion brands continually come under fire for blackface controversies.
“In the United States, we still have politicians who have had to apologise for blacking up during parties in their youth. Kim Kardashian darkened her skin for a huge photo shoot, for which she too apologized. The reason I think this happens, in many societies including Arab societies, is how little people have been taught about slavery in their histories. Blackface is a practice directly related to African slavery, and education about that is unfortunately not deep enough at best, or ignored at worst,” explains African-American historian Prof. Powell, who spent years in Egypt and travels to the Middle East regularly.
While black slavery can seem like a peculiarly American institution, it is also a painful fact of history in the Middle East where countless East Africans were sold as slaves. But there continues to be a wall of silence around the slave trade across the region which has helped to avoid challenging questions regarding the enduring legacies of slavery and anti-black racism in Arab societies that continue to affect social forms of life.
This culture of silence that has long prevented Arab countries from engaging in dialogue about racism, slavery and skin colour, and according to Prof. Powell, has led to a popular outright denial that racist attitudes against back people exist within Arab societies. “My experience in the Arab world is that most people do not know the historical meanings behind the word “abid” (slave), or they relegate the idea of racism to the United States, without seeing how it can exist amongst themselves, in their own countries,” says Prof. Powell.
Moving forward from widespread denial to overcome the stigmatisation of black people requires a multipronged approach. Proff. Powell explains that although social media has made it easier to hold comedians, directors and producers to account, and that Arab scholars are increasingly publishing wonderful work, the most critical element to break the culture of silence is through education. “Curricula about African history and also slavery (and not only Atlantic slavery) that educates students about the different roles blacks have played around the world is crucial,” she said.