It’s almost 2016 and we’re still having to explain why blackface is wrong

After the incident last year when two University of Pretoria students wore blackface to a party, one could assume we would all be clear on the fact that blackface is racist and shouldn’t be worn. Sadly, one Wits medical student still hadn’t gotten the memo. PONTSHO PILANE explains.

It seems to be the same script every time – a group of students decided to throw a party (this time it was themed Under the African Sky) and one of them thought dressing like a domestic worker while wearing blackface would be a good idea.

Wits blackface [screengrab via Facebook][name blacked out]


Medical student Shari Weinstein initially uploaded the pictures to Facebook but deleted them after her classmates called her out on condoning the racist actions of her friend.*

Winstein offered an apology saying that she had posted the pictures “in all innocence” and that “some of the pictures may have offended people”.

Shari Weinstein apology Wits blackface

Based on the wording, it seems she still doesn’t really understand why what she did was wrong. So, once again, here are three reasons why blackface is, and always will be, a no-no:

1. History actually matters
Melissa Steyn, professor of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, describes blackface as “a visual equivalent of a racist joke”. Blackface, started in American minstrels shows in which white people would perform in blackface, portraying black people as lazy and playing up perceptions of black people as sub-human for the sake of laughs.

2. It’s about humiliating black people
Blackface is based on the notion of making black people look inferior. It is a performance that often exaggerates certain features of black people, as when the UP students stuffed pillows into their pants.

3. Black lives are not a costume
It seems the go-to representation of black people by the students involved is always that of a domestic worker. (In the 2014 incident at UP, the students also dressed as domestic workers.) These university-going young adults are surely exposed to a variety of black people every day, including classmates and lecturers, yet they choose to impersonate domestic workers for laughs. It is clear that these students do not see black people beyond those in subservient roles.

In short, blackface is and will always be wrong. Do. Not. Do. It.

And while you’re at it, don’t post pictures of other people doing it among the happy snaps from your party. In fact if someone turns up at your party wearing blackface, tell them to get some perspective and go wash their face.

* A previous version of this story implied that more than one Wits med student was involved in the incident. This has been corrected.