The blacker the makeup, the whiter the face
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
Before I begin, let me say that what follows has been ferociously debated not just in society in general but also between myself and friends, lovers and relatives.
For starters, look at my name. I live in Quebec, I have that name but I come from franco-Ontarian stock and was raised and educated virtually entirely in English. I was lucky when my widowed father married a Québécoise because my spoken French, until then, was like my written French is still - painful. What all this means is that I am a perfect cultural bastard: one foot in each of our founding nations. This puts me on the wrong side of many societal debates with about half of my entourage about all of the time. Individual rights v. the greater good, religion v. atheism, etc. ad nauseam. We really are two different groups. What's worse, for me, is that I tend to see aspects of correctness on both sides even, sometimes, at the same time.
However, from time to time, I have lines in the sand which I will not allow others to cross. Capital punishment, choice. Yadda yadda yadda, I know.
Recently another has raised its head. I - and many - had thought it had gone away. Blackface. Read: Don't do it...ever.
I know, all of this sounds like I'm discussing apple pie and the flag.
This thing, that seems so profoundly obvious to me, has somehow become an issue again. On New Year's Eve I, like many Quebeckers, watched the year end comedy shows. The glory of PVRs made it possible for me, for the first time, to watch several on several networks. On both Radio-Canada/CBC's and TVA's year-end, they did sketches about a TV show here that stars Gregory Charles. Gregory Charles is black. The actor, in both cases, was white. I can't tell you what the gags in the sketches were because I think I went deaf.
I hit Twitter. The discussion was about the sketches and outrage and - on the other side (which I did not suspect existed) - the tyranny of political correctness. Why don't people get that blackface has a history that still resonates? That, however, is a discussion for the ages.
The argument that grabbed me most was one about how Charles was an icon of Quebec culture, had to be satirized and what could you do?!
How about, for your revue, hiring at least one actor of colour? (I nearly strangled someone who told me that maybe there weren't any available.) I cannot believe that is a discussion still. Almost three decades ago, when I was on ACTRA's national board, we were studying the lack of visible minorities on TV and in film when there were specialized theatres of colour who never seemed to have trouble finding great talent.
I know, all of this sounds like I'm discussing apple pie and the flag. But what people never consider in debates on blackface (or yellowface) is that both are not only insulting for their lack of historical memory, but are profoundly insulting (especially in Radio-Canada's case) because they signal to thousands of artists across the country: we don't need you.
Worse, when those artists' backs arch our comeback is something as insanely ignorant as: Don't be so politically correct!