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Blackface as racial solidarity?
Every protest movement needs a great song.
Earlier this month the famed comedy trio Shlishiyat Ma Kashur released a protest video, a clip full of anger ripped from the front pages. A serious departure for the trio, “Ayalon Darom” (the title taken from the Ayalon freeway, which was blocked during rush hour during a protest by Ethiopian Israelis in May) depicts the three actors as Ethiopian Israelis fed up about racism in Israeli society, sick of being seen as nothing more than dishwashers who run fast and shouldn’t be let into the nightclub.
The clip comes a few months after a protest movement was launched by Ethiopian Israelis across the country, in response to racism and police brutality, and sparked by a video of a police officer attacking an IDF soldier of Ethiopian ethnicity.
Showing solidarity with this struggle is all fine and well, except that all three actors in the clip are in blackface, speaking with exaggerated, ridiculous accents, and bouncing and shufflin’ their feet like they were ripped straight from a minstrel show.
Blackface is rather common in Israeli satire shows. One example I remember well was on Eretz Nehederet, where in a recurring role, Mariano Idelman would play Condoleezza Rice with his face given a brown hue. Most embarrassingly, for some reason Idelman’s Rice would spontaneously break out into Aretha Franklin-style riffs and song and dance numbers, because maybe that’s what the writers figured a Stanford professor and former secretary of state acts like, if she’s black. More likely though, it was just a cheap gag, a lack of creativity or wit that manifests itself in a racist trope, at least to American eyes.
That may be the crux of the issue to a certain extent. Blackface simply doesn’t have the same cultural weight in Israel that it does in the US, not even close.
There is not the same history of racial violence between black and white Israelis, during which blackface was a feature in the darkest days of this history. Seeing it through American eyes though, the natural reaction is to cringe, to feel almost a punch in the gut at the obliviousness of the writers and actors who thought this was a good idea.
The use of blackface outside the United States was also written about this week in a column on Vox about a high-brow Dutch newspaper’s review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book on race in America Between the World and Me.
The review opens with almost a fullpage picture of a big-lipped caricature of a black man dark as pitch, above the headline “Nigger are you crazy?” in English. The editor of the newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, said in comments to The Washington Post that the drawing was meant to illustrate stereotypes and “white aggression” and not meant to be offensive, and that thinking they were would be stupid.
The Vox article then draws a connection between the tone-deaf (to Americans) article and the Netherlands Christmas tradition of Zwarte Piet – “Black Pete” in Dutch. During Christmas time, many white Dutch people put on blackface to depict “Black Pete,” a helper of St. Nicholas often depicted as a black Moor from Spain, or a former slave from a Dutch colony, or a chimney sweep, to explain his blackness. Besides being a terrifying thing to run into at an Amsterdam department store if you’d never previously heard of the tradition (speaking from personal experience), it is often defended by supporters as a cultural tradition and most importantly with the assertion that “it’s not meant to offend.”
I don’t think “Ayalon Darom” is meant to offend. All three members of Ma Kashur grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Ramle and elsewhere, Mizrahi and Georgian guys who were not part of the racial elite growing up.
Their video and their lyrics speak to a very real struggle now being waged by many Israelis, and I think their hearts are in the right place.
The clip brings to mind another Ma Kashur skit from a few years ago, about an Ethiopian-Israeli pilot who is hypersensitive about race, and constantly, mistakenly taking the air traffic controller’s requests as bigoted. Again, whatever message about racism they may have been trying to get across is obscured by the fact that actor Tzion Baruch is, again, in blackface and speaking with a thick, laughable accent that one wouldn’t expect from a pilot.
That doesn’t mean that a blackface skit is incapable of making intelligent social satire. In a skit a few years ago on the Israeli comedy show Shavua Sof! a group of Hamas terrorists bring their commander a kidnapped Israeli soldier bound with his head in a burlap sack.
Once they lift up the sack to reveal the soldier (an officer with the rank of captain) is black, the commander upbraids the terrorists, and the soldier – played by a white actor in blackface – is told apologetically that he is free to go and that Hamas knows they can’t get anything from Israel for a black soldier.
Watching the clip today, with Ethiopian-Israeli Avera Mengistu in Hamas captivity after climbing the fence into Gaza and with little public debate about returning him, the clip makes a strong (if heavy-handed) statement about race in Israel, even with the blackface.
There’s often a tendency among Americans in Israel to imprint their own social, cultural, and racial constructs from America onto Israeli society, almost expecting an exact fit. There’s a sort of unspoken belief that something that’s offensive there should also be out-of-bounds here, without taking into account the very different histories and cultures of the two countries.
When it comes to race, this can be glaring, and blackface is a classic example of something that simply doesn’t carry the same weight here.
Nonetheless, even without that same history, there are certain things that are universal, and at its very core, blackface – in America – is about laughing at black people, making them out to be objects of ridicule who talk and dance funny.
Israeli comedy is rife with ethnic humor, lampooning Jews from the East and the West, as well as Arabs. Still, something feels different when the ridicule is directed at the lowest rung on the social ladder.
Did Ma Kashur mean well even with the blackface? I think so, but maybe it’s better to let Ethiopian Israelis speak for themselves, and for everybody else to listen.