10/22/2013 08:39 EDT | Updated 10/25/2013 04:07 EDT

Blackface is a Black Eye to Canadian Values

One day we will all be in stitches, laughing together at the symbols which have lost their racist tone of yesteryear. Today, we are not there yet. Mario Jean's minstrel portrayal of a black person hurt members of the larger Franco-Canadian family. No one, not even the privileged members of the dominant culture, can deny it.

Québec is still reeling from the controversy following actor Mario Jean's performance at the Gala Les Olivier. The popular personality painted his face brown, dawned a kinky-haired wig and adopted a foreign accent to "impersonate" an African immigrant-turned-Québec-comedian Boucar Diouf. The act was part of an ugly blackface revival in La Belle Province.

Blackface, a practice whereby a white actor painted his face black before mocking African slaves and their descendants, is a formula ingrained in the history of North America. Blackface minstrelsy was a lucrative and easy form of entertainment for whites from the 1800s onwards. Caricaturing African-American patois, song, and dance created and reinforced racist stereotypes in an era where Blacks were considered subhuman. In time, Black comedians would adopt self-derision as entertainment, as it was often the only alternative to menial, miserable employment reserved for these second-class citizens. Stereotypes embodied in the "Jim Crow" characters of blackface minstrels played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide.

Over time, cultural norms evolved. The disturbing practice is practically extinct everywhere in North America... well, almost everywhere.

It is with shock and disappointment that the nauseating phenomenon rises from its ashes -- even on the airwaves of the publicly-funded French CBC and on Télé-Québec last week. A brave Afro-Quebecer dared to say aloud the internal conversations of the Black-Canadian population: the symbol which still makes an entire community cringe has no place in a modern society.

The Denial Defence

A deluge of demagoguery followed, especially among venerated and historically illiterate Québec journalists. Yes, minstrelsy existed in Canada and the province of Québec was not spared. Although the historical chapters detailing racial and religious discrimination in Québec are overshadowed by annals of linguistically-based disputes, they remain anchored in the collective memory of descendants of the slave trade. The Je me souviens slogan (in English: "I will remember") has a unique connotation to each citizen.

A recurring falsehood among blackface defenders: "Donning black makeup is like wearing a blonde wig to imitate a character with golden hair." Um, no. The wig does not fit in the 400-year narrative of brutal follicle exploitation. The spurious comparison, designed to quell rightful indignation, does not hold water.

Another classic excuse: "Racism is the same or worse in other jurisdictions." Only cowards compare themselves to the worst to justify acceptance of the status quo and thus blocking collective progress. As the country's most avant-garde province, Québec's state-sponsored entertainment television stations can aim higher than this gutter gag.

Other pundits contend that Mario Jean's depiction "is not blackface, it is a white man putting black makeup to imitate a man who happens to be black." Come on! Next thing you know, they will try to convince the audience that a nickel isn't equal to 5 cents. By playing with semantics, they hope to ease the sting of a repugnant symbol. The fetid stench remains.

Blackface is part of a short list of images that evoke profound disturbance in a portion of Canadian citizens for whom the fight against racial discrimination is not yet won. At a time when the afro-Quebecers can be stopped by the police while driving a vehicle considered too luxurious for their skin tone, where advertised housing is suddenly "already rented" when a person of colour meets the prospective landlord, where dark skin makes finding employment more difficult, there is still a long way to go.

One day we will all be in stitches, laughing together at the symbols which have lost their racist tone of yesteryear. Today, we are not there yet. Mario Jean's minstrel portrayal of a black person hurt members of the larger Franco-Canadian family. No one, not even the privileged members of the dominant culture, can deny it.

The Uncle Tom Defence

Some denigrate the "hyper vexed eternal victims" who "don't know how to take a joke." First, they appropriate black history symbols, then they reassign their significance before depriving the afflicted of their feelings -- as if this human attribute is not granted to us. In what capacity do they give themselves the right to impose their sociocultural blindness onto the browbeaten? In dehumanizing an entire community, they facilitate the slur's perpetuation. You can't hide behind a singular "black sheep" to justify the cultural slap any more than you can use Jay-Z's tour title to justify casual use of the n-word on the airwaves of public broadcaster.

Télé-Québec located another "Uncle Tom" to agree to self-defecation, just like Redskins-naming proponents found a Native to endorse the racist sporting name. The cunning tactic will not right this wrong. With Radio-Canada's broadcasting flatulence, the most affected communities spoke out increasingly. Although the intention was not to rub salt on the open wounds of discrimination, the damage is done.

"We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil. "

- Martin Luther King

The real question is: what do we do once made aware of the grief caused by such an appalling gesture? This is indeed a test of Canadian values. Faced with this societal fork-in-the-road, there are two possible outcomes.

The first is the way of those who bury their heads, who will whistle past the graveyard of human decency, who decided that the deep disturbance of a community has no importance or value. Under the guise of lazy laughs, they plunge into the darkness called indifference.

"It is not malicious acts that will do us in but the appalling silence and indifference of good people."

- Martin Luther King

The alternate way forward is that of intercultural awakening, social awareness and cultural maturity. Those who chose it are now aware of the gesture's significance, understand its impact, and will take precautions to avoid a relapse. To cultivate the brotherhood of man in the wider Canadian mosaic, they will find more innovative ways to entertain a plural audience, and help build a country where all citizens benefit from a minimum of respect and civility.

The choice is yours, Canada.

NOTE: this blog originally published in French for the Huffington Post Québec.

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