Practical Philosophy Seminar. Anna Smajdor: "Drag and blackface: equally objectionable?"

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The BBC recently reported on Justin Trudeau’s apology for having used ‘blackface’[1] at an Arabian nights themed party in 2001.[2] Also covered on that day on BBC News, was an article celebrating the artist RuPaul’s drag act.[3] This is not the first time a public figure has expressed contrition about ‘blacking up’. Some years ago the British comedian and actor Lenny Henry wrote about his shame and regret for having participated in a ‘black and white minstrels’ show.[4] Henry himself has also appeared in drag[5] but has never to my knowledge expressed any kind of sorrow or regret over this. Yet at a superficial glance, drag and blackface share some similarities. In both, the characteristics of a specific biologically-defined group are mimicked for the purposes of entertainment. So why is it that the two phenomena are treated so differently?

 

Rebecca Tuvel’s widely publicised paper ‘In defense of transracialism’, argues that 'considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism'.[6] If this is the case it might seem to strengthen the idea that drag is at least potentially as objectionable as blackface. Tuvel discusses the idea that it is offensive to 'don' black identity, suggesting that it could be viewed as 'insulting or otherwise harmful' to do so. She mentions the 'horrid history of white people pretending to be black.' According to Tuvel ‘There are myriad insulting and harmful ways one could assume a black identity’. It seems that one could make many of the same points about the ‘donning’ of female identity in drag performances.

 

But Tuvel’s paper, of course, sparked a wave of outrage and controversy. Transgenderism is far more widely accepted as a ‘real’ phenomenon than ‘transracialism’.[7] What is true of gender is not necessarily true of race, and vice versa. Could this distinction contribute to, or justify, the different ways in which we respond to drag and blackface? In my analysis, I will consider whether the gulf between the social acceptability of drag and blackface respectively, could be reasonably ascribed to a simple failure of blackface to correlate with a ‘real’ phenomenon of transracialism in the way that drag could be correlated with transgenderism.

 

I will suggest that though superficially plausible, this explanation does not ultimately convince. Therefore, we should be prepared to regard drag acts as being similar enough to blackface acts to warrant similar responses, whether these responses are outrage and offense, or amusement and hilarity.

 

[1] I take ‘blackface’ to be the use of makeup to darken one’s features, possibly in conjunction with other measures to mimic ‘black’ characteristics.

[6] Tuvel R. In defense of transracialism. Hypatia. 2017 May;32(2):263-78.

[7] Botts TF. In Black and White: A Hermeneutic Argument against. Res Philosophica. 2018 Apr 3;95(2):303-29.

Published Oct. 8, 2019 11:08 AM - Last modified Oct. 31, 2019 5:21 PM