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Photo: Taymaz Valley/Apt613

So what’s the big deal about brownface?

By Yasmin Nissim on June 15, 2020

Photo: Taymaz Valley/Apt613

In the wake of George Floyd’s horrific and needless death at the hands of police in the U.S., voices have been raised once again all over the world against anti-Black racism. On June 5, people took to the streets in Ottawa to protest against this bigotry, police brutality, and the systemic racist infrastructures that persist in our society. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended that protest and took a knee alongside participants. As photos of the PM kneeling circulated, many were reminded of a different set of photos that made the rounds a few months ago during the fall election.

During the campaign season, photos emerged of the PM at a gala where he had painted his skin brown as part of a costume. This ended up generating quite a bit of polarizing discussion, with many people, including other politicians, condemning the photo as a depiction of racist brownface. However, there were others who saw nothing wrong with this costume, and some who just weren’t quite sure whether painting your skin to look like another race is in fact racist. This is an excellent teachable moment with respect to racial representation.

I want to take a moment to explore why so many people found those photos problematic to the point of offensiveness. To be clear, I’m not seeking to argue whether this particular incident in isolation was racist or not. Rather, I’d like to delve into why painting one’s skin to mimic another race can be quite hurtful, in particular to those being impersonated.

So. What’s the big deal about brownface anyway? The short answer – a person’s skin colour is not a costume.

In the case of PM Trudeau’s photo, he was dressed up as a fictional character from the story of Aladdin, which is set in the Middle East. So while the costume itself was no different than dressing up as any other pretend character, painting himself brown to mimic a darker skin tone supposedly representative of someone Middle Eastern was unnecessary. It took what should have been an innocuous costume and turned it into something problematic. Regardless of the intent someone may have when painting themselves to look like a different race, the act of doing so can be seen as incredibly disrespectful.

But why is there such a negative stigma around this behaviour? The answer to this question is a bit longer and can be attributed in part to the entertainment industry.

Since its early days, rather than hire people of differing ethnicities to play a role representing their own race, theatre and movie producers would instead have white actors made up to look like other races. Many of the depictions were mocking and disrespectful, relying on cultural stereotypes and deeply hateful exaggerations of racially defining features that disparaged the targeted group – skin colour was a regularly occurring theme. There are numerous examples of this we can reference from the entertainment industry’s fledgling days, right up to present time: Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel (minstrel blackface), Laurence Olivier in Othello (blackface), Mickey Rooney’s character of Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Chinese yellowface), Audrey Hepburn in The Unforgiven (Indigenous redface), Charlton Heston in A Touch of Evil (Mexican brownface), Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit 2 (Indian brownface), and Ashton Kutcher’s Popchips ad (Indian brownface).

It reduces the impacted community to a series of stereotypes, erasing already-marginalized voices in defining their own cultural narrative and identity.

Brownface, blackface, redface, and yellowface are all examples of treating characteristics like an individual’s skin colour, racial features, and cultural dress as a caricature or costume in a manner that devalues and trivializes their worth. It reduces the impacted community to a series of stereotypes, erasing already-marginalized voices in defining their own cultural narrative and identity. In the case of our recent election, it is against this historical backdrop that people were engaging with the photos and why so many found it upsetting.

While the entertainment industry is certainly a significant influence around this practice, it is only one element of a much larger and complex issue around problematic racial representation, which is itself a by-product of systemic racism. The topic itself is incredibly dense and nuanced, and cannot be fully explored in this short article. I have merely scratched the surface in the hopes that I’ve sparked some curiosity to learn more among those who may not have had any background knowledge with which to navigate the historical undertones around this issue.

In keeping with my previous article about how to be a better race ally, educating oneself on the experiences of other communities is vital. As many people reflect on their beliefs and how we as individuals and society as a whole can do better, I strongly encourage you to further explore this history of race-as-costume to better understand how and why it is hurtful and disrespectful, and the role it plays in perpetuating racist views. Below you will find numerous links to articles that probe more deeply into the history and impact of this phenomenon. Hopefully, with more education people will leave behaviour of this kind in the past where it belongs, and eventually we’ll be able to move on to treat it as a historical artifact of less enlightened times.

Resources to get you started

  • http://reappropriate.co/category/colour-face/
  • https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/28/100-times-a-white-actor-played-someone-who-wasnt-white/
  • https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/296-two-centuries-of-blackface-in-canada/
  • https://theconversation.com/the-problem-with-blackface-97987
  • https://onezero.medium.com/the-modern-mutation-of-blackface-3da8a832db8e
  • https://www.vox.com/2014/10/29/7089591/why-is-blackface-offensive-halloween-costume
  • https://www.huffpost.com/entry/just-say-no-to-blackface-_b_1752139
  • http://annemarieshrouder.com/2414/brownface-and-the-impact-of-race-as-a-social-construct/
  • https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/19/world/brownface-blackface-yellowface-trnd/index.html
  • https://www.teenvogue.com/story/yellowface-whitewashing-history
  • https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2014/06/20/old-yellow-peril-anti-chinese-posters/
  • https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2019/0318/Redface-remains-persistent-despite-Native-Americans-pushback
  • https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/yvqk7m/redface-is-just-as-offensive-as-blackface-909