What is “brown face” and why do we keep doing it?

Let us be extremely honest: there are and will be many Singaporeans (and Asians) that do not see the controversy behind “brown face”. And it is this audience that I am writing to in particular.

Brown face, is the local extension of America’s “Black Face”. Blackface was used in performances in America, from stage to television. White performers would blacken their faces and exaggerated their lips. This is particularly noted in “minstrel shows”, white actors would use black grease paint on their faces to depict and made fun of slaves.

The performances themselves were exaggerated stereotypes of blacks, complete with racist imagery that amplified the racist attitude. It is this stereotype that made blackface particularly offensive. There is also the use of the makeup where white people in blackface would appear almost exclusively in broad comedies or “ventriloquizing” blackness.

The backdrop of this form of entertainment is this: mistreatment and dehumanising black people. Mocking them to show them that African-Americans were inferior. 

This is a Western concept and they fought to eliminate it from their culture. Have you used Darlie toothpaste? Did you know it was once known as “Darkie”? Well, Darkie was a parody of an American blackface performer and the whiteness of his teeth inspired the brand and logo. In 1989, amidst controversy, the company renamed the brand to Darlie and reformed the logo.

I remembered Darkie. When I was a kid, I asked someone why they changed the name. This adult told me back then that it was because the logo was scary, so they made it friendlier. I think she honestly believed it.

In Asia however, it is still known as 黑人牙膏 (Black Person Toothpaste) because in Asia, the name has no social context and people are unaware of its derogatory nature in the West. The Western context is considered newly imported, many continue to be unaware.

This is one of the reasons why even in 2019, many Asians are unfamiliar with why it is considered offensive to slather a face with dark cosmetic. To some, it is merely makeup, crossdressing, acting…anything but insulting. They don’t mean to offend. It doesn’t make business sense to offend. No company in their right mind would want to antagonise the markets by something that would insult another race. Darlie went the distance to reverse their branding, cause if they don’t they would be out of business.

Darlie went the distance to reverse their branding, cause if they don’t they would be out of business.

The incidents of “brown face” in Singapore is not used in a manner akin to minstrel shows of racist America of the past. It is not tasteful, in fact it is very stupid. But it is clear that they have no racist intent, and certainly no intent to spread hate. They may be idiots, but it is not a crime to be an idiot. 

All cases of stupidity in Singapore have been smacked down but because of the lack of the Western context, we can be very sure someone else is going to do it again. If they knew, they wouldn’t carry out such idiocy.

If you are an affected race and want to fight this idiocy, the best way is to make people aware of their naivety. Was it be surprising that an entire team of people would allow a dumb ad to go through without anyone pointing it out? Hardly. The social context is just not strong here.

Even in America itself, where black face originated, there are people whom are unaware of the makeup’s offensive nature. They do it on Halloweens, they do it at fancy dress parties. If they are ignorant, what about societies from the opposite side of the planet?

But what you don’t do, is that you do not fight idiocy with hate. You don’t release a video that repeatedly tells the audience that “[Race] people keep f—ing it up” and proceed to aggressively attack this race in a music video. Without context. There are laws enacted to prevent precisely things like this to protect all.

This video has done nothing to educate people about what is offensive. It does not bring awareness as to why it is considered offensive. It does little to build the social immune system that can prevent a repeat occurrence. And because of this, I am almost certain that it will happen again.

Somewhere out there, is an idiot who thinks he/she can one-up Kumar, someone who doesn’t read a lot of social media, someone who isn’t very smart… this someone is going to repeat history.

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