For the second time in just four years, blackface appeared on the world’s most-watched television event. The program celebrating the Lunar New Year was broadcast to over a billion viewers in China and all over the world, some of whom are now pointing out a problematic dance segment supposedly meant to celebrate African culture.
The CCTV Spring Festival Gala is an annual extravaganza that airs on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Last weekend, over 1.2 billion viewers around the world reportedly tuned in to the celebration. The 5-hour-long TV program typically features a series of performances including comedy skits, songs, and dances. Eight minutes into this year’s Spring Festival Gala was a segment titled “Festivals,” which showcased dances from different cultures. The first performance was called “African Song and Dance,” but instead of featuring Black performers, it had Chinese dancers in blackface. Some of them carried baskets of fruits on their head, while others played goblet drums. Many had dark makeup on their faces and bodies.
Other countries represented in the dance segment included Egypt, Argentina, and Russia. While these cultural portrayals were all stereotypical, only performers in the African dance had painted faces. The attempt at cultural celebration fell flat with international viewers.
Some have tried to justify the blackface, saying that it did not have racist intentions, but many pointed out that such portrayals still have a negative impact.
“Something can be racist and have an adverse impact without having the intent to cause harm,” Mark Akpaninyie, co-founder of Black China Caucus, an advocacy group for Black professionals specializing on China, told VICE. “It's important to acknowledge the historical perspective and lived experiences that inform the worldview of Black people.”
“We call on those that practice blackface to cease, for blackface not only misrepresents, devalues, and dehumanizes an entire subpopulation of the world, but also goes against the values of mutual respect,” he added.
This is not the first time blackface has been featured on Chinese television. In the 2018 Spring Festival Gala, a Chinese performer portrayed an African person in dark makeup and exaggerated fake buttocks for a comedy skit. While this year’s Spring Festival Gala did away with the fake buttocks and exaggerated acting, the use of skin-darkening makeup persisted.
Despite online criticisms, Chinese authorities are unapologetic. In a statement to Reuters, China’s foreign ministry said that the inclusion of different cultural elements in the show was a sign of respect, and that those who want to “make a fuss” about this year’s Spring Festival Gala “obviously have ulterior motives.”
The appearance of blackface on the Spring Festival Gala seems to have sparked mixed responses from Chinese netizens. Some recognize the offensive nature of donning blackface and expressed their disapproval of the performance.
“I can’t believe such a stupid racist practice, which has been denounced for a hundred years, is appearing on the 2021 Spring Festival Gala,” wrote a Weibo user.
“The opening performance with blackface is making me sick. I can’t help but doubt the cultural educatedness of the Spring Festival Gala director,” commented another.
But, for the most part, anti-Blackness is still very much a part of Chinese society, which is likely why blackface still appears in huge public events like the Spring Festival Gala.
“While anti-Blackness and the way it has operated in society may not be a Chinese invention, it is still present in China. It’s this anti-Blackness which excuses and defends this instance of blackface in the face of legitimate concern,” Akpaninyie said.
On Weibo, posts about the issue are riddled with racist comments about Black people living in China. This happens a lot. In 2009, an African-Chinese contestant on a national talent show was the subject of brutal online criticism taking aim at her mixed-race background. A similar instance of cyberbullying happened again in 2020, for another African-Chinese woman in a singing competition. In 2016, a Chinese laundry detergent commercial showed a Black man being shoved into a washing machine before emerging “clean” as a pale Asian man.
Apart from blackface, viewers also spotted other problematic elements in this year’s Spring Festival Gala. They pointed out instances of fat-shaming, singles-shaming, and misogyny — all masquerading as light-hearted humor. While complaints of sexism in the Spring Festival Gala have been acknowledged by state media in the past, these tropes continue to play out on screen each year.