White Othello, black Anne Boleyn. Colours of the political palette

It's not about whether someone is a racist; it's about how immune they are to accusations. The word "racism" no longer works like a whip but like a taser. Few people will dare to ignore or laugh at the accusations.

It is increasingly difficult to understand the complexities that surround the sensitive field of combating racism. If someone dresses up as a black man, it is terrible. If a dark-skinned actor plays a historical figure everyone knows was white, such as Anne Boleyn in a recent production, that's good. If a company produces cosmetics intended for skin whitening, it isn't good at all. However, if I rename the same products as “ illuminating”, that's fine. Bronzing cosmetics somehow slipped through the cracks, but what if skin-darkening agents were manufactured? It would probably be awful, but the problem does not exist for now due to the lack of demand. Or maybe, on the contrary, the demand would be good?

Who is Othello?

So, let's consider this specific example: can Othello be white? Of course not if we stick to tragedy written by Shakespeare. Could Othello be played by a white person, an appropriately made-up actor or a singer when Verdi's opera is performed? Not anymore, because what was obvious for centuries today would be a manifestation of racism. So what are we supposed to do? Common sense would dictate that you stay away from "Othello" unless you have a dark-skinned performer around, which is not a problem in the case of actors but more difficult in the case of singers.

But one might say such drama is obsolete in its original form, dating four hundred years back. And thus, "Othello", performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2015, opened a new path. Shakespeare's hero was white, and the Latvian singer Aleksandrs Antonenko gained a memorable place in the long history of opera. So, The Met took the lead, somewhat undeservedly, because a year earlier, Australian tenor Stuart Skelton had already appeared as the white Othello on the stage of the English National Opera.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE However, racism trackers, in this particular case, fall into a trap. Othello was not a Negro (the drama takes place in Cyprus, and it was difficult to find Negroes there); he was a Moor - and therefore an Arab. Arabs are not a discriminated minority, and dressing up as an Arab is not frowned upon, at least for the time being. To make matters even worse, the Moors are considered white. The unfortunate Othello falls victim to an ideological fervour that should not concern him at all.

The Old Maid, the Black Peret must disappear

Every year, at the end of November, a highly anticipated guest arrives in the cities of the Netherlands and Belgium. This is Sinterklaas (by name, the equivalent of Saint Nicholas, although this is not quite the same). The entourage of time-honoured traditional helpers usually accompanies him along the way. Sinterklaas arrives by ship, travelling from Spain, and is greeted happily by all the inhabitants. Especially the younger ones are excited, which is completely understandable. They express their enthusiasm because his arrival begins the pre-Christmas fun time, which lasts until December 6.

Entire generations have grown up in this tradition, which has never been in doubt. Until progressive activists appeared on the scene and questioned the presence of Sinterklaas's helpers, known as the “Black Peters”. Zwarte Piet, a friendly guy painted black with curly black hair and full red lips, is the most popular parade participant because he entertains the audience and hands out gifts to children. For the Dutch, Zvarte Piet is the quintessence of good, truly Dutch tradition. Opponents see it as a relic of the Netherlands' colonial past and a living manifestation of racism that must disappear.

The “Kick Out Zwarte Piet” organisation has tried to eliminate the Black Peters family for over ten years. Not without effects, because although initially, the Dutch swore that they would never let Zwarte Piet disappear from their lives, years of persistent anti-Piet propaganda took their toll. Many people were convinced that tradition is tradition, but you cannot hurt anyone's feelings, even if those offended are the minority and the immigrants.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte's policy change could have been important. Not long ago, he didn't see anything wrong about Black Peter; indeed! – he revealed that he enjoyed being one when he was young. "Piet is just black, that's all," he said. Eventually, however, he relented. He did not go so far as to recommend that Peter could be subjected to the "cancelling" that is so desired today, i.e. removing him from games, but he expressed hope that the tradition would die a natural death over time. Black Peter’s faithful - conservatives and right-wing parties - fervently believe this will never happen.

A loophole has been found for now: Black Peter got a new name, a new look and a justification. He became “Peter of the Chimney”, black not because of his skin colour, but because he gets dirty with soot when entering houses through the chimney. He is white.. only with black streaks on his face. More and more cities want to adopt him now.

Racist slippers

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The most prominent victim of racism hunters was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – kind of ironic - because, among all modern leaders, he is a model of political correctness. However, when he participated in student games in his youth, he liked to dress up as a black man or play other dark-skinned fairy-tale characters, for example Aladdin, which inevitably required darkening of his face. Now, he regrets this. The media found photos from years ago; the guilt could not be hidden, so Trudeau had no choice but to humble himself and apologise for the mistakes of his youth.

A similar episode occurred in the EU Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders’ life. A few years ago - not as a teenager anymore and painted in black - he participated in a charity collection in Brussels. When questioned by journalists, he showed remorse, but not excessively. He claimed that the specific staffage attracted people’s attention and, as a result, more money could be collected.

Singer Kate Perry was more original at fault. Although she didn't paint her face dark, she wore racist slippers! The eye-catching black shoes decorated with a face motif, blood-red lips and expressive blue eyes with large whites were considered politically incorrect. She was sorry; she didn't know.. she didn't want to offend anyone and wouldn’t repeat the mistake.

Cultural globalisation resulted in reproduced stories and precisely the same accusations spread beyond countries where there are many black people, reaching places where there are none, including Poland. Quite recently, a TV performance - by a performer who was supposed to play the role of a black singer - was greeted with horror. Naturally, it was impossible to portray the character without darkening the face. The resulting noise is difficult to take seriously when you think of the producer, who with an apparent disregard for common sense, expressed his anger, beating his chest and promising an investigation. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be concerned, as this may point into a specific direction that is both disturbing and incomprehensible.

Blackface fun

Although one aspect here explains a lot in American reality, it is rather far-fetched in European countries. In Europe, blackface is simply a blackface - no less, no more. Meanwhile, in America, “Blackface” is the name for mocking performances, popular years ago, in which white people played the roles of the black ones. It wasn't just about the makeover – skin colour, type of hair, big lips - but also about imitating black people's behaviour, movement, customs and vocabulary. “Blackface”, successful and popular, was intended to entertain the audience. And, as experts say, the whites were truly entertained; the blacks though felt ridiculed and humiliated.
The lead role in "The Jazz Singer" went to Al Jolson, who was white. Photo GRANGER / Granger History Collection / Forum
It is difficult to say whether all black people perceived it that way or whether such feelings were attributed to them only from today's perspective. For a long time, blackface performances were treated as ordinary entertainment, and the fact that a white person played a black person did not raise any objections or surprised anyone. That was the convention. This type of practice, for example, was common in the early years of Hollywood and drew attention with good results. For example, Al Jolson, the main actor in "The Jazz Singer", the first sound film, certainly was not black. The art of makeup successfully transformed the white actor into a black singer. And he wasn't the only one to wear makeup and look black.

Even if it is difficult to capture the moment when attitudes began to change, the real accelerator of the change in attitudes was undoubtedly the Black Lives Matter movement and the madness of the ex-post-fight against slavery and colonialism. The case of “Black Peter” perfectly illustrated how great a role it played. In 2011, as much as 90 percent of The Dutch couldn't imagine not having Zwarte Pieta with them in the run-up to Christmas. In 2019, its defenders constituted 59 percent. In 2020, when BLM demolished the public scene, only 47% supported the Peter’s tradition.

Beethoven vs Pushkin

Lately, there has been a real surge of black characters on media screens. These are both historical figures whose skin colour was changed to suit the ideology conveyed by the film, as well as fictional ones set in unusual realities.
So, we have the already mentioned black Anne Boleyn and her brother George, black Cleopatra (which caused such outrage in Egypt that the distribution of the film was suspended), and there are black representatives of aristocratic circles of 19th-century England in the series "Bridgertons". If anyone insists that a historical production should manifest at least the basic facts, they probably don't understand artistic freedom, right?

On top of this, let's complete the list with numerous updates of the literature scripts and the original film productions, all to fit modern screen version expectations. So there is a black Doctor Dolittle, a black cowboy in the remake of "The Magnificent Seven", dark-skinned friends of the spaniel “Lady” owner in the new "Mongrel in Love" and a dark-skinned "The Little Mermaid" - in short, Mr Wańkowicz's educational stench in a contemporary version.

It would also be good to convince the general public that even in ancient times, outstanding artists had African roots. We, ignorant people, would never have thought of this, but what about experts and activists who can sense imperceptible nuances? Root trackers took a liking to Ludwig van Beethoven. As their main argument, they cited not only the composer's wavy hair and skin tone darker than the average German but also the lively rhythms in some of his works. Clear, in their opinion, this proves Beethoven’s African genes.

Funnily enough, activists avoided Alexandr Pushkin, even though they could easily find what they sought in his origin. The poet's great-grandfather, Abram Gannibal, was the famous "Negro of Peter the Great", as he was called, the tsar's protégé, probably born in Central Africa. Thanks to the ruler's favours, Gannibal entered Russian high society. For years, it was believed that Gannibal was a gift from the Turkish Sultan to please the Tsar, although research made more recently indicates that he came from Paris, where he received his education.

A word like a whip

Today, black and white, like the rainbow stripes, have become colours of the political palette. Their meeting point is, on the one hand, a very conflict-generating place, but on the other, it speaks volumes because it serves as a touchstone of attitudes and intentions. It's not about whether someone is a racist; it's about how immune they are to accusations. The word "racism" no longer works like a whip but like a taser. Few people will dare to ignore or laugh at the accusations. Instead, we will rather observe humble withdrawals, apologies, and assurances that never, ever again... This is the mandatory ritual now.

And the fact that fear of being labelled “a racist” has consequences -much more severe than the career of this or that politician and celebrity - can be seen on the streets of Western cities. If it were not for this fear, it would have been easier to control the crowd of immigrants who disregard the rules of the countries they came to. Everyone is afraid of stigma, not only decision-makers. Voters are also afraid, lacking the courage to support those ready to face the problem.

In this text, we write about people. However, this picture is incomplete because tracking racism is not limited to people's behaviour. The material world is also assessed for perceived racism. According to investigators, everything that uses black and white has racist undertones: chess, traffic lights (the colours of the figures showing that it's OK to go), and cosmetics. Why chess? Because White always starts the game. Why lights? Because the figure on the black background is white, why not the other way around (then there would be even more white, which is probably not good either?). Why cosmetics? Because they promise skin whitening, and if so, there is only one conclusion: white skin is better.

Surprisingly, the piano keyboard hasn't been deemed racist yet. The white keys are larger than the black ones, and there are many more of them. We also have to consider the symbolic dimension of both colours since black is the colour of mourning, and white is the colour of innocence. However, this is not a completely different story – if we reach for Kipling's words. This is just a sequel. All those things are yet to come.

– Teresa Stylińska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: Will Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) permanently disappear from the Netherlands? It is still holding on for now, although politically correct successors are increasingly replacing it. Photo KOEN VAN WEEL/EPA/PAP
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