It's been widely reported that Quebec has a bad reputation when it comes to xenophobia, from Jacques Parizeau's comment about the ethnic vote following the 1995 referendum to racist signs popping up all over Saguenay this past summer. Montreal sometimes appears to be the multicultural exception to the rule, but it seems like it can't escape the occasional blackface incident.
Last year I wrote a piece about the use of blackface on national television in Quebec and my own ill-advised experimentation with blackface as a child. Now another incident involving the use of blackface occurred when Théâtre du Rideau Vert decided to use a white actor to portray Montreal Canadiens star defenceman P.K. Subban in its yearly wrap-up show Revue et Corrigée.
The impression is part of a skit in an hour-long annual show in which actors play several public figures who have made headlines that year. Earlier this month the show was publicly criticized for its unacceptably racist portrayal of Subban by theatre critic Pat Donnelly of the Montreal Gazette and later by Diversité Artistique Montréal (DAM), an organization aimed at promoting diversity in Montreal's artistic landscape. And yet not only did the show continue unchanged, but it's been such a hit that the run has been extended until January 10.
Donnelly addressed her hesitation to see the performance in his write up admitting that she "almost didn't go because [she] had some concerns that [she] would once again see a white performer in blackface with a bad Afro wig trying to pretend they're a black person, because it's been frequently done with this show in the past."
Indeed, this is just the latest incident in Quebec's sordid history of racial insensitivity. In 2011 there was the McGill University incident where students were seen in blackface running around a sports stadium holding stuffed monkeys as a tribute to Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, and then again last year comedian Mario Jean wore blackface to portray fellow comedian Boucar Diouf.
Sadly, Quebeckers donning blackface is starting to feel all too familiar, and the reason why it keeps happening—especially given the racial tension making waves south of the border—remains a mystery.
Part of the blame might go to French-Canadian media who have been failing its audience by underreporting the insensitivity of using blackface. A quick search showed that while CBC wrote a piece about Subban's portrayal in Revue et Corrigée, Radio-Canada, its French counterpart, made no mention of it other than a raving review dating from a few weeks ago.
At the time of publication, the only French comment on the issue was a brief feature in La Presse four days before CBC reported on the story. In it, Théâtre du Rideau Vert's management made a point to mention that its creative director had, in recent years, cast several black actors in a dramatic interpretation of the Whoopi Goldberg musical classic Sister Act—which is the PR equivalent of someone saying, "I'm not racist, some of my friends are black."
In defence of their questionable choice to have a white actor play P.K. Subban in black makeup, Théâtre du Rideau Vert mentioned that the cast was selected before knowing which public figures were going to be portrayed in the show, which doesn't really explain why, with an all-white cast, they insisted on impersonating a person of colour in a manner that is widely known as insulting. The media representative for Le Theatre Rideau Vert did not respond to my request for comment by the time of publication.
While it could be argued that the actor portraying Subban didn't explicitly lampoon the hockey player using the same reductive black stereotypes of the 1830s minstrel tradition, for Quebec entertainers to ignore the history of blackface—especially after last year's media outrage over a similar incident, Subban's very own dealings with racism on Twitter, and the growing movement to make people aware that #blacklivesmatter—is sadly both ignorant and unsurprising.
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