Blackfaced Morris Men spark debate about racial stereotyping vs. tradition

·National Affairs Contributor
Photo of the Vancouver Morris Men during their 2010 Morris Gastown Border Tour from their Facebook page. (Vancouver Morris Men Facebook Page)

Morris dancing, one of those uniquely British pastimes, appears to have run up on a reef of political correctness.

The Vancouver Morris Men, one of the international troupes that practise the medieval English art of song, dance and mummery theatre, have been criticized for performing in traditional blackface, the Vancouver Sun reports.

The incident highlights the collision between traditional ideas and cultural activities once taken for granted and multi-cultural society's heightened sensitivity to giving offence.

U.S. immigrant Cecily Walker, who is African-American, was leaving her apartment in Vancouver's Olympic Village neighbourhood when she came across the group performing at a nearby plaza.

"I was just thinking, 'Am I really seeing that?' " the former Atlanta resident told the Sun.

To Walker, this looked a lot like the now-reviled blackface minstrel shows common in the U.S. before the black-consciousness movement made such blatantly racist portrayals unacceptable.

Walker spoke to one of the performers who told her the blackened faces aren't meant to represent black people. Dancers supposedly used burnt cork or soot to disguise themselves while they performed for money because they didn't want their neighbours to recognize them as beggars.

But Walker said the group should have explained that to the spectators, adding the performer she talked to said he'd heard such concerns before.

“Which to me said ‘yeah, we know what we’re doing is hurting people,’” she said.

In Walker's initial blog post about the encounter more than a month ago, she described herself "shaking with rage" at the sight of blackface performers and not accepting the explanation that it was simply tradition.

"Is it time to think of another way to honour your tradition without causing emotional damage?" Walker wrote. "Should you be given a pass because your art is old and time-tested, or because it was the ways of your forefathers?"

[ Related: Should Dutch 'Black Peter' character still be part of Christmas in Canada ]

Graham Baldwin of the Vancouver Morris Men said the group had been performing in blackface for more than two decades and has rarely heard complaints. Performers use white in the summer and black in the winter, he told the Sun, adding the dancers often hand out brochures that explain the significance of the face paint.

“We are sensitive to the fact that some people misinterpret what we do," Baldwin told the Sun.

Wikipedia's entry on Morris dancing says one theory is that the name derives from the term "moorish dance," with origins in the expulsion of the Muslim Moors from Spain in the 15th century, which might explain the blackface.

Baldwin told the Sun it's important the group stay close to its traditional roots but conceded it probably wouldn't wear blackface if it performed in the southern U.S. Some U.S. and British Morris-dancing chapters have stopped using it.

[ Related: Redskins nickname takes beat at Smithsonian symposium on racist stereotypes in sports ]

Blackface has become controversial in England, the home of Morris dancing. KentNews reported in 2009 Morris dancers were banned from performing at schools because of the face paint's racist connotation.

"What we really want to do is educate people to what it's all about, which is a disguise," dancer Peter Hargreaves told the news outlet.

"We are not pretending to be Afro-Caribbean or anything like that. It's a disguise farm workers used to use if they didn't want to be seen to be begging when they were out dancing on the street for money.

"We could change and not use the black faces any more, but it is really down to how it is perceived."

But it perception has become paramount. The Dutch tradition of "Black Peter" as part of the country's Christmas tradition — also incidentally with Moorish roots — has become the object of controversy in the Netherlands and also in Canada.

U.S. sports teams such as the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Braves have come under fire for exploiting native American stereotypes.

Things can go wrong even when the goal is to enlighten. The Florida Times Union reported recently a colouring assignment given to second-graders as part of Black History Month that featured blackface, minstrel caricatures and even a lynching scene sparked outrage and an investigation.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting