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Why ‘blacking up’ is WRONG

Here’s the thing. It’s not just face paint and a chance to be ballsy for the night. ‘Blacking up’ is steeped in a history of discrimination, degradation and bigotry. That much is obvious when you realise where it’s derived from. The minstrel shows and the toy golliwogs of the 19th and 20th century were pervasive and invasive in their intention to portray black people in a derogatory light. They were meant to dehumanise and caricaturise an entire race into infantile rogues for the amusement of the privileged superior race.

It’s not about remaining PC so the racism police don’t give you a slap on the wrist and a warning about offending someone ‘sensitive’. There’s a genuinely sinister undertone to a young adult, fully equipped with a wealth of education and social awareness, choosing to perpetuate these backwards racial stereotypes; the very racial stereotypes that hindered the progression of equality and promoted the persecution of many.

Appropriation of culture is bad enough as it harks on a willing ignorance. Racial appropriation amps you up into a whole new level of stupid if changing skin colours for the night is the sum and whole of your joke.

Or seemingly, a perfect icebreaker and introduction into your fresher identity. It seems all too convenient to say it’s a joke and an excuse for a controversial cover photo – BNOC stardom, here they come (!) It’s not smart or witty, it’s just lazy and sloppy.

Heightening racial tensions at the University of York is an especially prevalent issue that needs to be taken seriously. Unless we are seen to do something about episodes like ‘blacking up’, we may see a decline in the percentage of BME students at York (currently at 15%) and an indeterminate residence in national newspaper headlines.


  • The Oracle says:

    This is a horrendously short sighted statement which is exactly the kind of outdated attitude that leads to racism. ‘Blacking up’ to represent characters is not ‘WRONG’, and neither is it an indication of what is a better race. Is it wrong to change your hair colour for a costume? Because that is the same thing. There were several black people who painted themselves white for Halloween, why are they not being criticised for making race an issue?

    Is it true that people who have the position of racial equality officers think that the matter of race full stop is an area which should not be mentioned? THAT is ignorance.

    I would also like to see solid evidence of heightening racial tensions around the University of York.

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  • Lucky Egg says:

    1) Surely the fact they are impersonating characters from a movie makes a massive difference here? I would agree with this articles stance if they had simply blackened their faces- such as those who did so back in 2008 in Spain to taunt Lewis Hamilton. That’s racist. But here they are impersonating film personas, not “backward racial stereotypes”. Maybe all the boys here are racists, maybe they’re not, but I don’t think you can condemn them as such based on one ill-judged night out. I would suggest the latter.

    and 2) “heightening racial tensions”…? this isn’t 1980s Brixton. I feel this may be slightly melodramatic.

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  • Alex says:

    What racial stereotype is portrayed when people “black up”? The stereotype that black people are dark skinned?

    As far as I know, those who dressed up as the bobsleigh team didn’t mock black people, they simply dressed up as people who happen to be black. It’s a shame that this is seen as any different to dying ones hair in order to dress up as someone.

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  • Leaver Beaver says:

    Heightening racial tensions? Behave. And I’m brown.

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  • George says:

    This is a great comment; we cannot accept this sort of behavior. To those who have commented, I can only assume you are not history students. If you were, you wouldn’t be so ignorant and would understand properly the weight of racist discrimination behind the act of ‘blacking up’. It harks back to empire and subjugation, particularly when it is carried out by the same elites who ran said empire and participated in those actions, the privately educated. And that was a hundred years ago. Can’t they move on?

    I’m not from an ethnic minority. I can’t claim to understand what it must be like to see this sort of thing happen. But I do suffer from mental health issues, and hearing people talk about lunatics and joking about the insane is one of the most viciously hurtful things I have experienced. I’m sure, again, they don’t mean it to be hurtful. But it is. And they are discriminating. I imagine being BAME and seeing this is similar. They don’t necessarily want to hurt. But they do. And it still makes them racist.

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  • ... says:


    Good god man. Read Lucky Egg’s point. They aren’t ‘blacking up’ to become black men. They are blacking up to become characters. Characters from a popular movie. Watch Cool Runnings and maybe you will understand.

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  • George says:

    I did. Have you seen the pictures? Please tell me, is that what you genuinely think black people look like?
    They were not dressing up as characters. Understand that.
    Also, this is partly my point. The motive is irrelevant. I suspect these people did not want/aim to be racist. That doesn’t mean they’re not being so. I can have the best will in the world, but if I act in a racist way, it is still racist.

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  • ... says:


    I would argue you that the “cool runnings” slogan written across the bobsleigh they were wearing suggests different.

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  • George says:

    Ok, ok. They wrote a slogan.
    Search Google images for ‘cool runnings costumes.’ You’ll find that most people have dressed up, quite accurately in my opinion, without resorting to blacking up. Because blacking up is never a costume; people don’t look like that. It is a racist stereotype. And it must be stopped.

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  • Sami says:

    It’s immaterial why they are blacking themselves up, it’s about what the image of 4 public school boys with blacked-up faces worn as a ‘costume’ means to those who view it.

    It pervades a sense of cultural ignorance and stupidity that should not only be embarrassing to modern British society but also does great harm to any sense of inclusion that ethnic minorities feel at York. I totally agree with the article’s authors that due to the history of ‘black’ caricatures in British history it is potentially offensive to certain people to black oneself up. It is not only about the individual act of blacking-up it is about what that signifies and it’s connotations.

    Caricatures of minorities remind us, (myself included) of the history of arrogantly implied Western European superiority that still in 2013 rears it’s ugly head at such instances when 4 public school boys actually, collectively think it’s a good idea to black themselves up for Halloween.

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  • james p mcarthur says:

    There is a difference between the extremely unique and identifiable facial make up that was prevalent in the minstrelsy of american vaudeville circa 1830s(SEE I CAN USE WIKIPEDIA TOO). Dressing up to accurately portray a character was never racist, and until you invoked this unnecessary and inaccurate parallel between tasteful personal expression and minstrel shows of old for the sake of mocking a black person. What these guys did was NOT racist.

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  • halalala says:

    I find it interesting that its all races except people who are actually black who seem to be making so much useless and unnecessary noise about this issue.. i am wondering if people who wrote this and those who support this even know what the issue is? No? Didn’t think so… the issue is that there is in fact NO ISSUE at all.. just because you’re in university and its a time for everyone to “discover” themselves doesn’t mean you just say/write whatever the fuck you want to, especially in a public sphere, just to stir shit.. seriously, don’t you guys have degrees to do?… get a life.

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  • MTA says:

    Completely agree @halalala.

    This is a costume – stop making it such a big deal. The Officers, honestly, poor show. Always trying to look like they are standing up for something and in the process, greating a far messier issue than it needs to be.

    STOP and let these 4 boys get on with their lives. They have been dragged through national press because of the usual York rumour mill and making things bigger than expected. jeez.

    OH and Im brown too, and a mix of other races too.

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  • Tray says:

    As a black person i do feel the whole ‘blacking up’ thing has been overanalyzed and blown out of proportion. Had I seen the outfit before people passed judgement it would have made me feel slightly uncomfortable i imagine but not “disgusted” and i would definitely not find it “sinister”. Because of our history and unfortunately the racist incidents that still go on everyday, blacking up was never gonna be the brightest idea and i imagine other black people out there are more offended than I am. What it comes down to really is we don’t live in a world full of rainbows and 100% equality where slavery never existed and where no one would bat an eyelid at something like this. Racism is still a big problem in this day and age and the smallest things will offend others whether it was meant to or not. People just have to be careful. It’s sad though beause had it been the other way round where a black person chose to white up I doubt anyone would care. We all need to assess our moral standards.

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  • M says:

    I find a lot of the comments here very disturbing, mostly because they show no ability to shift from your own perspective and understand another one, which in an apparently ‘progressive’ generation I feel, lends itself to a very subtle dismissal of racism (amongst other isms and phobias). It’s not that there is a direct parallel drawn between minstrel shows, golliwogs, cartoon caricatures, mammy figures etc and ‘blackening up,’ it’s the complete disregard and lack of understanding or empathy for the emotions it may or may not create as well, by putting exaggerated black paint on white skin, it’s distasteful. I agree with the comments of a couple here that understanding the historical context of this is profoundly important to understanding why it’s not just something light-hearted and simple as a dress up game. to the person who mentioned that black people seemingly are not quite as opinionated on this matter – it’s because a lot of black people, similarly to other races, are not terribly informed on the impact of the context of black caricature figures and how they have shaped perceptions. I also might add that this simply can never be compared to the idea of ‘whitening up,’ (which I also think is distasteful and never would do) by the simple fact that these two things can be qualified in terms of harm. Images of caucasian people have never been ridiculed; the european standard of beauty and appearance in fact, is the one to which all other races aspire to. hence why there are such skin colour problems in asia, why many black people bleach skin and perm and alter hair texture. We live in a euro-centric society and as such, there is no harmful legacy to be remembered regarding dressing up white. for people who do not understand this, I often invite them to watch the series of bbc documentaries Racism: a history, on youtube, which very clearly explains these concepts. In the same way that nasty cartoons and children’s textbook examples of Jewish people under Nazi Germany aided in brainwashing an entire nation into accepting certain visual and characteristic stereotypes of Jewish people, images and mockery of African features have been very harmful. It is a sensitive subject and one that shouldn’t be turned into a source of ‘banter,’ or dress up, when the huge scars inflicted by a (might I add, recent) history of demonisation and on-going cultural imperialism, have not yet even healed or been recognised by some! In a place where I believe I am well educated, from a good background, studying at this apparently great university.. I am still referred to as ‘shaniqua’ or ‘girrrrl’ in York for banter because I’m mixed race, random white guys ask me to ‘twerk’ or pet my hair against my will as though I am an animal… yes I feel I am directly affected by these image stereotypes and quite frankly, very fed up of them. Bottom line is, this was a very stupid thing to do. You may not consider this directly racist and most probably, these boys do not think that is in their character either, but the actions carried out will certainly at the very least, offend those who truly understand the history and can shift their perspective; black, white, asian, etc.

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  • Hmmm says:

    Serious question – if they had bought the exact correct shad to match the actors skin colours – would it then be acceptable, the fact is the characters are black in the film, would you acuse someone who dyes their hair red to mimick Ron weasly as an offensive attacker of a minority group? In an equal society In an equal society I don’t understand how one minority group gets special treatment compared to others, next you will have people dressing up as the opposite sex plastered on the front of nouse due to sexism…. Racists don’t dress up as black people, if they were racist (deep hatred for races) they wouldn’t be copying a character from a film in jest. They have done something. That some can see as insensitive due to it being seen as racist during the blacking up issues of Golly wog dolls/ minstrals etc. However that was decades ago- have to move on. In the same way you wouldn’t accept someone using the term gay as a description for happiness (but rather as a slur if used in a derogatory fashion) don’t interpret something that was rooted in hate decades/century’s ago as an act of hate today.

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  • Ben says:


    Take a look at WHO wrote the article and then understand why they are writing a comment piece…

    Keep your inane, derisive comments to yourself in future.

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  • jennifer says:

    I fully support the statement.

    As a post-grad mature student at York university it disturbs me greatly to read young people’s comments that reflect that they genuinely think that blacking up is not racist.

    I’m sorry but it is, and I can only this this strange perspectives comes from a lack of life experience. I know the vast majority of people your age do understand when a wrong is a wrong though and you therefore don’t have many excuses.

    Blacking up ridicules black people. Blacking up by York’s most privileged students is especially distasteful when they may likely take up roles of influence in the future. Black people of the UK, in contrast, has mainly had to fight hard to get to university and are hugely under-represented. There are some black students who have enjoyed the advantages of Eton and wealth but this does not represent the true picture in the UK of gross inequality.

    I wish that Old Etonians did not have a direct path into power in the future, but mainly they do. That’s why parents spend so much sending them there. They are paying for the advantage: for the old school network. I despise this elitist system here in the UK.

    If they are to be channelled into that upper strata of society and business then they could maybe give the UK and its population some respect, and be aware, and be decent.

    As for that, some of you here cannot even speak respectfully to one another. Show respect for those who have not had your advantages in life, and make yourself morally and intellectually deserving of your place at a university in respect of those who lacked the opportunities to enjoy the same.

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  • Maverick says:

    I think those 4 lads should dress up like this again and go around Brixton, see how funny the locals around there find it…

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