Earlier this week Toni Duggan, the Manchester City footballer, decided to dress up as Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act, for fancy dress, and the photo was posted on Instagram for the world to see. As Duggan is white, and Goldberg is black, Duggan decided that it would be appropriate to employ ‘blackface’ to approximate the appearance.
This recalls the fall-out of last Hallowe’en, Julianne Hough used blackface to impersonate Crazy Eyes from Orange Is The New Black. She also apologised. This was written about in the Guardian by David Dennis. It carried the headline, “I shouldn’t have to say this in 2013: blackface Hallowe’en outfits aren’t OK.”
Inevitably, Duggan was roundly criticised by many of the public and also anti-racism activists. Using blackface recalls racists acts like minstrelsy. We all know that blackface is offensive, and so it was welcomed when Duggan apologised for her mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, and the important thing is not to defend them, and to learn from them. Duggan has this chance, and ideally she won’t make similar mistakes in future. Duggan said she was, ‘very sorry,’ clearly demonstrating an understanding of the transgression.
She was retained by Kick It Out, an organisation that attempts to eliminate racism from football. Given it has been snubbed in the past by Jason Roberts and Rio Ferdinand, amongst others, it demonstrates that it does not have the full support of prominent footballers who are at the same time committed to work against racism. It is not infallible on race and racism itself.
Given the opprobrium and Duggan’s apology, and referring back to Dennis’s article, it should be accepted that something wrong was done. Which is why it was a surprise that Michael Butler’s Fiver of 5 March referred to those upset by a white woman in blackface as, “people desperate to be offended by very little.” It sits very awkwardly that the Fiver should be lecturing people of colour what is and isn’t offensive when it comes to race.
It should be said at this point, that this section of the Fiver – Bits And Bobs – was not written by Michael Butler – a shame, then, that many people will have assumed that he holds unacceptable views on race, and white privilege. It has not been made clear who wrote it, but it was not Butler. Indeed, everything after the opening section of the Fiver, from Quote Of The Day onwards, is never written by the bylined author. The unacceptable views on race and white privilege are hanging in the air – somebody wrote them.
Referring back to Dennis’s article in the aftermath of the Hough transgression, this is the key passage:
“Some readers may think I’m overreacting; as if I’m placing a meaning to simple face paint that harkens too far back to still be relevant. The fact is, blackface is still seen as incredibly offensive by a large segment of the community – black or otherwise. Shouldn’t that be enough to make someone want to not put the black paint on his or her face?
Too often, though, it’s the offending party who tries to determine exactly what’s offensive to subjugated groups. That conversation is always a disaster. Trying to convince a subjugated group not to feel a certain way about oppressive symbols – with decades or even centuries of history – is an exercise in hegemonic privilege:
“Because I don’t feel offended by it, you shouldn’t either.””
The Guardian, a supposedly progressive newspaper, using their platform to tell the subjugated what is and isn’t offensive – what progress. Because the white author is not offended, we shouldn’t be either.
A number of people contacted Marcus Christenson, the football editor who referred the matter to Ian Prior, the sport editor. In an email to me, Prior said that he didn’t, ‘regard the segment in question as an attempt at a joke, neither, on reflection, do I think it beyond the boundaries of acceptable comment.’
Regarding this email to me, a black woman, Prior complained that he was being asked to provide a prompt reply. He was busy tweeting at the time. In another email, he said there was ‘no need for an apology or correction’ on the matter. He however required no prompting for this response – it was a response to a white man, by the way.
We can assume, then, that the point made by whoever the author is, is a serious one and not made as a ‘joke’. Prior also thinks that it is acceptable for a white author to lecture people of colour on racism, with a sneering tone. Given he also sees no reason for apology, one could infer that he is also of the same view on this matter, and given that he wants to issue no correction, he his happy for Butler to be saddled with a seriously damaged reputation.
There are three ways for Prior to put things right:
1. Clarify who wrote the offending section.
2. Issue an apology for the racist section.
3. Learn from his mistake.
You can invite Ian Prior to do so via his email address firstname.lastname@example.org and/or on Twitter @ianprior.