Tory MP Desmond Swayne moans people have 'lost their sense of humour' about 'blacking up' and insists blackface isn't offensive

Sirena Bergman@SirenaBergman
Saturday 18 July 2020 08:45
news
(Twitter/BBC)

Tory MP Desmond Swayne is desperately in need of some attention, it seems.

Earlier this week he sparked outrage by saying that having to wear a mask in a shop was "a monstrous imposition", while many pointed to the fact that he didn't have a problem covering his face up when it was in a more racist way.

Just as the furore over his comment died down in favour of everyone trying to work out what Boris Johnson's latest announcement actually means, he decided to put himself back in the spotlight.

In an episode of The Telegraph's politics podcast Chopper's Politics released yesterday evening, he speaks to host Christopher Hope.

Swayne reiterated the idea that being required to wear a mask (or, as he somewhat troubling calls it, "masking up") is a "monstrous imposition", and accuses the government of making this rules as a political decision based on the polling to increase popularity with voters.

Swayne admitted that he chose those words carefully in the House of Commons, essentially trolling journalists into reporting on it. Yes, we fell right into the trap. And it gets worse.

Hope asked him about the now infamous image of Swayne in blackface dressed up as James Brown at a party, pointing out that "things have changed" since the photo was taken.

(Side note: lots of things change but blackface has never been OK.)

Referencing Justin Trudeau's blackface scandal which he apologised for, Swayne said:

Heavens' sakes! We've got to the stage where you've got to apologise for going to a party years ago in fancy dress... and of course there's my mistake. I said 'I went to a Blues Brothers themed party in the past and I went as James Brown! And of course all hell broke loose.

Hope asked him whether he'd do it again now, knowing the offence it would cause.

Swayne replied:

I'm disappointed that people have lost a sense of proportion and sense of humour and that there are things just can't say and can't do, even if they're done for the best possible reasons.

Going to a party and having fun in fancy dress seems now to be something that one has to take... [the recording crackled a bit here so it's hard to know what he said. Perhaps 'seriously'?] in these woke times.

Upon further probing, Swayne got quite agitated, repeatedly asking "Why is it offensive? Why is it offensive?" and tries to convince Hope that it's just the same as a Black person dressing up as a white person (it's not), before going on to claim:

There's not a racist bone in my body!

He goes on to compare blackface to "wearing a lot of make-up" or "wearing a costume".

Swayne is far from the only person, at least of his generation, to be ignorant as to why blackface is so damaging and offensive. But someone who genuinely cared about racial equality and educating themselves could easily find out exactly why this is the case, no matter what the intentions.

(Although for what it's worth we don't believe that "going to a party and having fun in fancy dress" is anywhere near the "best possible reasons".)

Blackface has historically been used as a way to exclude and marginalise BIPOC from a society which elevates whiteness.

White actors were hired to play Black characters and would do so by relying on dehumanising stereotypes. The mocking and ridiculing of Black people for the entertainment and financial benefit of white people is what blackface is rooted in.

Today, we still live in a systemically racist society.

While minstrel shows may not exist in the format they did in the early 19th century, white people still exploit and appropriate aspects of Black culture for their benefit, while never experiencing the oppression that actually comes from being Black.

This is what "blacking up" to dress up as James Brown when you're a white person does.

It's not the same as a Black person dressing up as a white person, because there is no structural power imbalance that is being exacerbated; it's not the same as wearing make-up or a costume (unless the costume is overtly appropriative, in which case that's also very much not the one) because those things aren't tied to race; it's definitely not amusing, funny or witty, and has nothing to do with a "sense of humour".

As far as we're concerned, anyone without a "racist bone in their body" would know that.

Final note: while your bones may not be racist, it's impossible to say your mind isn't. We are socialised in a society which promotes racism everywhere you look, it's just that white people have the privilege of not consciously noticing the impact it has on people of colour.

That's why when a Black person tells you something is offensive, you really should only do one thing: listen.

Trending