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When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This month’s Halifax Pride was pressured to apologize for a photo which appeared in both their online promotional material and the July 18th-28th 2019 Pride schedule of events booklet.
Page 58 of the brochure features an image of a white individual wearing a black facekini covered in fake jewels. The individual was also wearing a white ball cap with the word “Aloha” and a small purple tutu around their neck.
This was simply too much for the white Chair of the Department of Social Justice and Community Studies at St. Mary’s University, Val Johnson. In a recent CBC article, Johnson first describes herself as a white scholar of racism and colonialism and then adds in her interview with CBC that “It is offensive because there is over 150 years of circulation of this image in the context of anti-black racism and white supremacy. I can tell you as a white historian of race and of white supremacy and whiteness that blackface is a long tradition among whites. It’s most well documented and discussed in the context of the United States and Canada and the British Empire.” She said it is found in advertising, children’s cartoons and nursery rhymes and includes the practice of white people dressing up in blackface in theatre, for Halloween and for other forms of “entertainment.”
Nova Scotia activist Lynn Jones joined her voice in complaint after receiving the newsletter from her MLA. “Oh no, not again.” These racist, absolutely incredulous, negative depictions of black people in the wide media (have) got to stop,” she told CBC. “It looked like we were to be ridiculed because it reminded me of the 30s, 40s … when Al Jolson would put on black shoe polish and different things and have the caricatures of black people with big white thick big lips.”
This is not blackface. This is a facekini
To the Halifax Pride Chair Morgan Manzer’s credit, he corrected both Johnson and Jones, noting that they might very well find the image offensive but that it isn’t blackface.
Morgan explained to CBC that the drag artist in the promotional image “is not wearing black makeup to cover their face, they are wearing a facekini.” He goes on to explain that in the drag and queer community, facekinis were popularized by Club Kid culture of the 80’s and 90’s.
“This photo comes from an artist within our community here in Halifax and facekinis were popularized at the time this photo was taken, predominantly on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and that inspired local artists to do the same.”
Inc points out that facekinis have been used since 2012 in China as protection from the harmful effects of the sun. The article also points out that facekinis may even have been around since the 1920’s, suggesting that’s why the garment appears on Gloria Swanson’s character Norma Desmond in the 1950’s film noir Sunset Boulevard.
When You’re a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail
Neither Halifax Pride nor drag queens would deny the actual history of blackface. But the facekini is not blackface, and the knee-jerk reaction to it, though perhaps understandable, should now be complicated by this new information—that facekinis are not blackface, and instead have multiple cultural purposes, none of which include racism. Gloria Swanson, swimmers, and LGBTQ performers inspired by black drag performer RuPaul, are not donning facekinis to evoke blackface or offend.
It’s frightening that we are moving away from a society where, as in law, intention matters. What matters now is who is offended, instead of whether or not that offence is justified. This is part of a larger problem promoted by academia and critical theory. When individuals are trained to seek out social offence (including unintended racial offence) they can easily find it anywhere.
Of course, Halifax Pride pulled the promotional photo from their online site, but they couldn’t do anything about the booklets that had been printed and mailed out. Despite the fact that offence was both unintentional and misplaced, Halifax Pride’s Chairs felt they needed to offer this apology:
“Obviously we are an organization that… (is) dedicated to providing safe spaces that are inclusive, free from oppression, harassment, discrimination and…we deeply apologize for not having met that standard.”