Blackface For Good: Only With the Right Foundation?

Is there ever a “right way” for someone to make themselves up in Blackface? Nope.

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But is there a difference between (a) the inherently exploitative act of Blackfacing and (b) experimenting with cultural and cosmetic aspects of identity in an equitable, inclusive, constructive, and respectful way? I think the answer to that one is “Maybe“, but I’m a European/American White guy.

The reason for asking is the internet publicity of a 34-year-old Hungarian woman who Photoshopped her face onto images of women from 7 African communities. Like Rachel Dolezal, the White freckled woman who represented herself as an African-American, Ms. Balogh was intensely criticised for exploiting an identity that is not her own. She felt compelled to delete her original post with the photos (but you can still see it on Archive.org’s Wayback Machine).

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I think the main thing wrong here is the process and framework. That might sound harmless, but the wrong framework covers everything from the thought “Black African people aren’t capable of the same science, literature, engineering, etc. as White European people” to a policy of enslavement, deprivation of rights, and casual murder.

There’s no available evidence that Ms. Balogh worked with the intended beneficiaries (the women of the cultures she says she wanted her Photoshop media to advocate for), so there is no established the context or purpose except for “White Savior-ism”, which is explored below. So there is no apparent reciprocity: no mutual exchange or participation.

Perhaps this would look different if she had presented the Photoshop media jointly with representatives of those communities and if she had members of those communities demonstrably included in the project planning and implementation.

What if the text Ms. Balogh wrote for the pictures had been written by a member of the communities or by an African woman who actually looked like the women depicted? This would change the context. What if the photos were part of a set, where other  African women willingly had their faces “swapped” with women from other cultures

Instead there is too much unbalanced power here.

I have to be honest with you I feel a little bit silly that I have to explain myself, my good intention, my art work for the people with negative feedback, as [if] I would have done something terrible.’ (Source)

Yes, Ms. Balogh seems to want to help – she introduces herself as a journalist and the photos as representing a way of life that is “at the brink of extinction”. She could be acting on a feeling of empathy – exploring how she would look in someone else’s position, in someone else’s body.

Yes, I can see why the artist says she has gotten some supportive messages, because there is maybe something good about the intention or concept: wanting to show similarities between different cultures. Her intent is different from a college fraternity party-goers dressing in Blackface  or the “minstrel shows

But Ms. Balogh acts on her “helpful” impulse by using the bodies and dress of these African women without their consent, which is an incredibly sensitive issue in the context of Europeans “helping” African communities by forcefully imposing European language, dress, religion, etc. as well as violently changing social relationships (especially governance). This is still an exploitation and expropriation of another culture, enabled by White European privilege.

There’s also something very strange about the language Ms. Balogh uses. Maybe there is something lost in translation from her native Hungarian to English, but talking about “stunning tribal beauties” has a slave auctioneer quality. It also seems strange that Ms. Balogh’s way of showing “beauty” is to show that White/European facial look pleasing in the dress of the depicted African communities.

This looks to me like a shade of the “White Savior Complex” (excellently described here by T.M.S. Ruge), where Ms. Balogh interacting with the women of these African communities as through whatever she does is good, because she is doing it to help. But who defines the right way to help?

Here is where I see a link between Ms. Balogh’s probably-well-intentioned Photoshop media and the worst image-abuses of Western Aid, e.g. depicting “Africans” as a general group as poor shoeless Black children.

I also think is a right way and a wrong way for someone in a more privileged/powerful position to interact with the identity and culture of communities that are less privileged or perhaps even vulnerable.

In the case of African communities, groups like The Roots of South Sudan work with fashion and traditional designs, but they are run and organized by the women the nonprofit organization is designed to benefit. If this functions for women in a country suffering a long civil war where women are at risk of rape and/or death during childbirth, I think the model would work for groups Ms. Balogh wants to help like the Arbore, Daasanach, and Turkana.

There are also great programs like the Young African Leadership Initiative in the USA, where every participating U.S. university gets ~30 African entrepreneurs, community leaders, and artists. You want to help Africans promote healthy identities with their own projects and businesses? Talk to them when they’re here in June and July.

I also understand some of what Ms. Balogh means when she says she feels “silly” having to explain herself – shouldn’t her intentions be obvious, she asks? Well that is the world of identity and politics, the pain and powerlessness of having yourself misrepresented without context and agency. In Ms. Balogh’s case she gets some harsh internet publicity – in the case of African communities, they can get treated like props for someone else’s gain.

Yeah I’m on my soapbox about aid. I’ve been in some form of Ms. Balogh’s intention – trying to help but really starting to do something really bad (no big deal but I almost enabled one of the bigger American/European “land grabs” of the 21st century). Then some nice people from the local communities beat some sense into me (metaphorically) and then, working with those communities, we set up a business…and then a civil war happened and the business closed…but at least we tried to do the right thing in the right way.

Just consider how much of what the U.S., Canada, and Europe calls “aid” actually goes to the intended beneficiaries – the men and women most in need – and in what form. Does it come as loans, as investment, as scholarships, as capital to help people directly take improve themselves and their communities? Or does the money go to third parties – often contractors or companies – who do things to the people they’re supposed to help instead of with the people they’re supposed to help.

Actually the answer is complicated but there is a lot that gets wasted and a lot of aid money that can actually do more harm than good.

Ok, enough of my Walter Sobchack-like detour.

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What the *#&^, has this got to do with Western Aid, Walter?

Just like Western Aid and Ms. Balogh, you can have good intentions beyond self-promotion, but if you don’t have the right framework, then you probably don’t have the consent and participation of the people you want to help, and that means you probably won’t get a good outcome.

Instead you will make people mad. Instead you might hurt people or perpetuate a system that hurts them. Instead you might continue depriving them of access to the resources and activities they need, including speaking to the world in their own voice.

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