Black Face Vs Black Faces: The Ghost of Racist Past

In Britain, the common culture is, the more tanned you are, the more attractive you appear. Now, despite this being down to personal preference, Britain has a history of lighter and darker skin complexes.

Martina ‘Big’, on This Morning, transformed her looks after undergoing plastic surgery and changing her skin tone.

Not only in media, this occurs in other fields such as health care. Patricia Louie, a PHD student from the University of Toronto, published an article discussing that “prominent medical books use very few images of individuals with dark skin tones in their medical textbook illustrations”. A skin tone contrast like this which affects the subconscious, has a bigger impact than we may think. The lack of representation in medical books, Louie argues, “could result in a failure to diagnose conditions like skin cancer on patients with darker skin tones”.

The relevance of this is, having less diversity in medical books with darker skin tones can possibly affect the physical outcome of a patient, so what does a lack of representation in media do to the mental state of people of colour? Are we supporting and encouraging the lack of diversity across magazines, film and TV by not challenging the global face of beauty which has been set by default?

The UK has a responsibility to reflect the cosmopolitan canopy that covers our nation’s land and air. There has been an improvement since the beginning of the 21st century, however, we still have a long way to go to tackle the inequalities ethnic minorities face in today’s media and the subtle racist advertisements mainstream brands use to mock Black people.

ASA investigated Paddy Power boxing ad over racism complaints.

If we go back as far as Victorian England, beauty was seen as pallidly and diatonic. Upper class white women aspired for pale white skin as this was the symbol of privilege. There were many cases where women would apply arsenic to their skin to upkeep the translucent appeal. Arsenic, found in the earth’s crust, is an extremely toxic compound that shouldn’t be received over long periods of time. Such effects like kidney damage, hair loss and arsenical keratosis were common 1800’s Britain. Such beauty products were also imported from the United States of America, which aided in feeding the craze for “soft white skin”.

Fast forward a hundred years and we arrive at the height of Blackface minstrelsy. Black face has been a part of British pop culture since its early existence of the 1840’s however the industry reached its peak in the early 1900’s with sold out minstrel shows and recorded TV shows. Although British textbooks tend to leave out its racist past, they don’t shy away from the covert racism in media and entertainment. From Blackface, minstrels, cartoons and golliwogs, Black people have been the laughing stock in this nation due to one thing only… skin colour.

This reproduction of a 1900 William H. Westminstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from “white” to “black”.

As time shows us, nothing lasts forever with pop culture, where we see what was once known as ‘ape like features’, to be glorified and worshiped now. The natural features of a black woman from her lips, body shape and skin tone seems to be the iconic look for beauty. A list celebrities spending fees in the thousands to upkeep such image, despite there being health complications later on in life, only reveals the lengths they will go to not fall out of the bracket of ‘beauty’ of which is now being idolised in British media and culture. If features of a natural looking woman of African/Caribbean descent are being viewed as the go-to look, then why are Black people being misrepresented in the media and why aren’t Black people in positions of influence in fashion and beauty to be included in the diversity ethos mainstream companies and brands like to promote as their ethos?

From TV, film and magazines, Black people in the UK have not had the representation they deserve. Although Black people make up only 3% of the UK population, they minor in productive economic avenues like businesses and wealth, but major in social constructs that give Black people a disadvantage like social housing, education and job prospects. When you engage in media outlets, this balance in what black people represent in is heavily displayed, e.g. Black women being servants, single mothers, ghetto unemployed loudmouth characters and sexually active in movies, whilst Black men casted/labelled as being villains, gangsters, monsters, rappers, drug addicts and drug dealers. The face of Black people in the media industry tends to be a negative one, whilst white counterparts are always seen the hero, saviour, good looking and victims of an oppression of which they overcome by exercising their supremacy. Adjacent to this contrast, great African stories of countries like Egypt, do not fall under the code of ‘Blackface’ as the new method of iconoclasm is to remove the Black image of the character and whitewash the story tell it through a eurocentric lens. In contempt of boycotts for movies like “God’s of Egypt”, where the only Black characters in the entire movie were slaves, Hollywood still keeps to the whitening and lightening of characters. British movie screens follow the same trend by having white actors play Black characters and place white TV personalities in shows that have settings to mock ‘council estate’ linguistics and social behaviours eg. Lee Nelson’s Well Good Show. Even though Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t white, some have argued that “ Da Ali G Show” was a pasquinade on Jamaican culture and imitated stereotypes that has tarnished the Caribbean island since the 1990's.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G.

Not only do we see a gap in the market for Black women to be more present on magazine covers such as Vogue, Elle, Vanity and Cosmopolitan, there is a common trend in magazines selecting lighter skinned Black women to cover their publications. Colourism has plagued Black civilisations across the globe to a point where darker toned men and women bleach their skin to appear lighter. Cosmetic companies and fashion brands have exploited this social class construct and have played into the colourism of Black race related issues. Common celebrities such as Beyonce, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Zoe Kravitz, Tessa Thompson, Thandie Newton and Zoe Saldana are regularly used as the face of Black women. But what do they all share? It is a positive move in the right direction to have Black women featured on magazine covers even though it is not often, however, in the same breath, isn’t this just the work of white elitists who control the trends of beauty and by outcasting darker skinned women, they are working the subconscious mind of the audience to the narrative of the lighter the better? I would put across that in comparison to the 1950’s — 1970’s where segregation was ripe and the main focus for Black citizens was civil rights, there has been progress but I cannot ignore the fact that magazine editors are strategic with what they market and most still have a discrimination against Blackness in all of its shades.

Since the 1980’s when Naomi Campbell’s career progressed, only a few selected models and celebrities have featured on the cover of magazines that have a darker skin tone Grace Bol, Lupital Nyongo and Leomie Anderson are taking the runways and mag covers by storm. Powerful bodies like Oprah and Viola Davis have joined the wave of change, but what did it take for this to happen and how long will this last? The new editor of Vogue UK Edward Enninful made groundbreaking changes when taking over in 2017, he did this when he debuted the cover of his first issue by choosing Ghanaian-British model Adwoa Aboah, photographed by Steven Meisel and wearing a Marc Jacobs turban, and in the process cementing his commitment to make British Vogue more diverse and inclusive.

This opens up the discourse on; instead of begging for change from those who discriminate, isn’t it better to infiltrate corporations by placing ourselves in positions of power so that a new angle can be taken and representation can be executed correctly?

First off, we have to bring about awareness just like what the young activists ‘Legally Black’ in South London did earlier this year. Frustrated about the lack of diversity in the film industry, they recreated famous movie posters and replaced white actors with black people.

It comes after research by the British Film Institute showed that black actors played only 0.5 per cent of lead roles in British films released between 2006 and 2016. In a statement on the group’s website, Legally Black said of the project: “The aim of the project is to increase awareness surrounding the lack of black representation in the media and furthermore create dialogue and discussion around the often inaccurate and harmful depictions that do occur.”

In closing, there are many factors that have brought us to the standards of today, the conditions of the mind and perspectives we live by have been formatted from a time where a new world was forming off the backs of indigenous tribes and civilizations. Racial hatred and inequality has been the DNA makeup of Britain and in a time where minorities can have a platform to be heard and seen, will still have groups that exercise their supremacy by the upkeep of surreptitious racism.

As a Black man in Britain, I want to be able to celebrate my difference, glorify my identity and be proud to have ancestry from a place that is no longer colonised. I no longer want to see Black people hating themselves due to the institutional racism and discrimination they receive regularly. I want little Black boys and girls to aspire to be the best version of themselves as they have grown up seeing successful British citizens that look like them, making a change in the world. In the face of racism, empowering oneself is the best form of defence.

A researcher and ethnographer currently studying Black Studies, activist in empowering young minds and bringing discourse on modernity.