Having made the offer to blog on subjects submitted by readers, I did not expect the first topic out of the hat to require such deep reflection. Thanks! Boglarka Balogh, a journalist and human rights lawyer, thought it was a good idea to morph into the image of black women, in a bid to raise awareness of the near extinction of secluded cultures in Africa. Boglarka is white. Her intentions may have been well founded but implicit in her actions were a reckless regard for black peoples’ feelings on the symbolism of blackface and the idea of the white ‘saviour’. Boglarka is a good example of the short-sightedness of white privilege which she has reinforced by failing to apologise to those she has offended. Blackface in any form reinforces toxic beliefs and is utterly wrong.
Since the abolition of slavery, the white establishment has continually used pop culture to mock and dehumanise black people to maintain the idea of white supremacy and black inferiority. Consequently, black people have been stereotyped as aggressors or buffoons.
Coon songs depicted blacks as drunken petty criminals always ready for a fight, blade in hand. Literature like The Negro Beast created the depraved criminal. Thomas Dartmouth ‘Daddy’ Rice, the father of blackface, created the character Sambo, an incompetent, constantly smiling, and childlike person. Black women had the added the burden of being branded ugly and unattractive.
Sadly, these stereotypes still pollute our culture today. Ali G and Rachel Dolezal in blackface and the depiction of black people as cannibals and savages in online games like Cannibals1. The aim of the game is that the user, as the big white hunter shoots the cannibals as they float down. If you don’t shoot them all, the little black cannibals, complete with razar sharp teeth and bones in their hair will climb the tree and get you.
Far right politics has risen in the 21st century at warp speed. Their only message disguised in immigration or Islamaphobia, is that white is good, and all else is secondary. Katie Hopkins suggested using gunships to manage the migration crisis while comparing the migrants to ‘cockroaches’ (see blog). UKIPs poster boy Andre Lampitt posts tweets which have included comments such as ‘Most Nigerians are generally bad people.’
Against this critical backdrop, Boglarka is blithely pretending that she is the same as the African women she emulated. She is not. When Boglarka is ready she can don her cloak of white privilege but for those women, it’s their life, and they cannot suddenly abandon it. Black history recalls that it was once a crime to pass one’s self off as white if you were black, whereas being a minstrel has long been a feature of white life. Her actions showed an appalling lack of sensitivity and given her civil rights background she should have known better.
Boglarka could easily have included the original pictures of the women in her photostory. Then Borlarka would have achieved her goal of celebrating ‘stunning tribal beauties’ and it would have been authentic. Instead, she imposed her image on their pictures. Rather than a celebration of beauty, it left me with the feeling that Borlarka was more interested in the culture than the people, who do not feature at all in the story. I also found it disturbing that her action implied that her white beauty was greater than theirs. After assuming black womanhood without the pain, or rites of passage, Borlarka proceeded to speak on behalf of the women from these seven tribes. Equality and empathy would suggest that she would be talking with these women and not for them. Speaking for them, as if she is their saviour, was condescending. When the cultural appropriation is also taken into account, this story becomes one of white superiority.
Boglarka says ‘[I know] pretty much about racism and similar issues, I have never imagined that my work will annoy so many people and that I will have to explain myself. And sure, I will not do that.’ The word humbled is not the one that springs to mind! Even when black people have said that it was offensive, Boglarka is adamant that she had done nothing wrong. So were the slave owners. Like them, Boglarka comes from a society where her race affirms her worth. She can, therefore, afford to wear her privilege lightly. White non-apologists have a history of behaving this way for racist behaviour. My dad always told me that sympathy without help is mock. Her actions are no more than that, mocking.
Boglarka has deleted the images but the damage has been done. While white people are afforded the unearned privileges in life and non-white people are denied them leaving them disproportionately disadvantaged, historical context cannot be ignored. It is that history that has led to the bias that exists. To move forward, we must stop all cultural behaviours that brought us to the point of inequality. Just like the N**** word Blackface in any form reinforces toxic beliefs and is utterly wrong.