Banning ‘black face’ isn’t fighting racism
Anti-racist campaigners’ obsession with ‘black face’ is well known. So, it came as no surprise to read that, in Birmingham, Morris dancers who wear black face have been ‘roundly abused and threatened with violence’ by a group of young men.
The fact that some Morris dancers wear black face – they say it is a traditional practice that is supposed to represent disguise, rather than mocking black people – has become a particular obsession in recent years. It’s ‘inappropriate’, ‘unacceptable’ and has ‘racist resonances’, claimed a Guardian commentator back in 2014. Britain’s leading race-equality think-tank, Runnymede, worried that it was ‘exploiting and dehumanising people of African decent’.
Back in the 1990s, I became a supporter of a small group known as East London Workers Against Racism. Campaigning for black rights meant pointing out official discrimination, protesting against police harassment, protecting Bangladeshi families near Brick Lane from racist attacks, and fighting against immigration controls. Needless to say, Morris dancers were way down our list of priorities. Today, anti-racist campaigners argue for bans and censorship in the name of diversity and equality. But the desire to ban the practice of black face is neither progressive nor tolerant.
The racism of black-face Morris dancers has been so overstated, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the arts and crafts wing of the British National Party. The dancers ‘contribute to the everyday hurt and exclusion’ of black people, according to the charity Fairness, Respect, Equality Shropshire (FRESh). After receiving complaints, FRESh wanted Morris dancers in the district to ‘phase it out’. There are campaign groups who want black face banned in British universities, throughout Europe, even worldwide.
Anti-racist struggles have been transformed into miserable You Can’t Do That campaigns. The campaign to abolish black face has got nothing to do with advancing the struggle against racism. It is all about telling ordinary white (especially working-class) people what they can or cannot do in social scenarios. And it will only drive division between ethnic communities in Britain. In a free society, Morris dancers should be free to wear black face, for whatever reason they see fit. Living in a free society means we must tolerate the existence of different cultures and traditions, no matter what we might think of them.
Courtney Hamilton is a writer based in London.