Mario Jean in blackface. via SRC.
A Quebec media war exploded over the past few weeks after Mario Jean, a popular Francophone comedian, wore blackface on national public television to impersonate black comedian Boucar Diouf. To the rest of the country, blackface is an obvious no-no, but every now and then in Quebec, you’ll see a white French comedian painting up his face and impersonating a black guy on TV, and by every now and then, I mean every single fucking year. Strangely enough, most people usually just laugh it off. But this time, Huffington Post commentator Nydia Dauphin called it out and said that the racist behavior has got to stop.
Rather than throw up their dark foundation-stained hands while sheepishly saying “guilty!” Nydia’s piece sparked a series of articles from various publications criticizing her for bashing Quebec and calling all Quebecers racists. It’s important to point out that Nydia didn’t actually call all Quebecers racists. She did, however, point out a major problem in Quebec—one that very few people here seem interested in tackling. And that is the fact that most French Quebecers are totally okay with a white person slathering black makeup on their face and imitating a black person.
In her response to Nydia’s article, journalist Judith Lussier admitted having never heard of the term blackface before. She even provided her readers with a link to the Wikipedia page, assuming they would be just as clueless (if you’re from Quebec and still confused check it out here).The unfortunate truth is: She’s totally right, lots of Quebecers don’t know about blackface. Some say Quebec’s education system might be at fault. The province’s high school curriculum provides youth with very little information concerning the history of black people in Canada, and makes a very brief mention of black slaves’ presence in the country. This results in most Quebecers having the impression that slavery and racism in the nineteenth century was not a Canadian problem, but rather an American one. Of course Canada did have slaves (in fact the only known slave cemetery in Canada, unfortunately named “Nigger Rock,” is located an hour south of Montreal).
The problem is that when Quebecers do find out about it, as they have during this debacle, they claim that it’s not part of their history, and therefore, not their problem. Which is weird because last time I checked, racism and cultural insensitivity is everybody’s problem.
It seems that Quebec’s isolationism and desire to be distinct from the rest of North American culture has come back to bite us on our artificially-darkened comically-inflated ass. Because we live in a microcosm with our own language—with separate political, entertainment, and economic spheres—it’s actually possible for a kid to grow up without ever hearing about blackface.
In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that I was one of those kids. When I was 12, I wore blackface. For my seventh grade English class we were asked to write and perform a monologue presenting the life and work of a dead English-speaking personality. I wanted to be Ray Charles because I just discovered downloading and was totally obsessed with his music. Naturally I wanted to look like Ray Charles so I asked my mom if I could paint my face black and go to school. Instead of giving me a lecture on cultural sensitivity and the extreme hardships that people of color have gone through, she just said: “Sure!” And off we went to the pharmacy.
We bought “espresso shade” Cover Girl foundation (not easy to find in Quebec city where pretty much everyone is white) and my mom dabbed it all over my face, snapped a black swimming cap on my head (Ray Charles doesn’t have long hair, duh), and sent me off to school. I did my presentation, everyone loved it, and I got an A.
Now, I look back on it and cringe. But at the time I had no idea I was being a racist asshole. I was paying homage to an artist that I thought was a genius. Does that make 12-year-old me a racist? I don’t think so. Does that make it okay? Probably not. But I did it, and now I feel pretty crappy about it.
The real Ray Charles. via.
But that’s what’s a bit problematic about Mario Jean’s impersonation of Boucar Diouf. As fucked up as it sounds, it also came from a seemingly good place. Mario was not parodying Boucar as a black person. His portrayal was literal and intended to show Boucar as an integral member of the Quebec comedy community. Was it malicious and caricatured? No more than any other impersonation. Was it insensitive, offensive and a poor choice? Clearly.
The fact that no one—not the actors, co-hosts, producers or directors of the event—took into consideration the significance of blackface as a racist concept, and the implications that lie behind it are rather stunning. This isn’t some sheltered 12-year old girl’s English presentation. This is a full-grown man and respected Quebec performer on a national awards ceremony. Ignorance is no excuse.
Of course as Nydia points out, this isn’t an isolated incident. Remember two years ago when a group of University students decided to dress up in Jamaican colours, chanted “smoke more weed,” and painted their bodies black? The outrageously stereotyped depiction of Jamaican people shocked bystanders who watched the students simplify Jamaican culture while parading around with stuffed monkeys like a modern day minstrel show. Yikes!
Complaints with the Quebec Human Rights Commission were filed quickly thereafter. The students defended themselves by saying it was a tribute to Olympic athlete Usain Bolt. Yeah, I’m sure the runner was incredibly flattered to see a bunch of white kids in blackface running around a stadium like complete morons.
There Is No Quebecois Word for the N-bomb
In her original piece, Nydia discusses how uncomfortable it is watching Quebec movies or TV series for fear of hearing the word “nègre” being dropped in reference to a black person. In Quebec this is totally normal. I’ve felt the same discomfort being around family members who unabashedly use the n-word. It’s also interesting to notice that there is no equivalent in French to saying “the n-word,” as if we hadn’t yet figured out a way to talk about it without trying to sound racist. And as for blackface, there is no term in French to describe the act of painting your face black to portray a black person. Some will argue that it is because the concept of blackface and minstrel shows are foreign to Quebec—that it was never practiced here. However that’s clearly bullshit.
In a letter to a local paper, Boucar Diouf said he wasn’t offended by Mario Jean’s impersonation. He also argued that comedy is a means to tackle race relationships and serve as a way to break barriers. But that’s a weak defense. How is doing a literal impersonation of someone trying to push any boundaries? Since when does blackface attempt to tackle any issues related to racial discrimination in Quebec?
Intolerance in Quebec takes many forms, from racial profiling to alarmingly higher unemployment rates for ethnic communities. The unemployment rates for Quebecers is of 6.6 per cent, while that of immigrants in Quebec is of 11.1 per cent. Last year, a study conducted by the Quebec Human Rights Commission tried to explain the phenomenon by sending out fake resumes to employers, some bearing common Quebec names such as Tremblay and others bearing African names such as Traoré. The study concluded that individuals with common Quebec last names were 60 per cent more likely to get a call for a job interview than people with names of African descent.
Maybe the silver lining on this gloomy, ignorant, and racist cloud is that people in Quebec are finally talking about the pervasive cultural insensitivity in the province. Perhaps in a few years, white moms all across the province will think twice before sending out their kids to school dressed as 2 Chainz for their oral presentations. But until, then we have hilarious skits like this to look forward to.
Follow Steph on Twitter: @smvoyer Would you like to read more about racism in Canada?