On the Tyranny of Tradition

NOTE: More than a month has passed since this incident took place, but suddenly, thanks to an article in the Vancouver Sun, interest in this issue has begun anew. I’ve said all I have to say on the subject. I’m also closing comments on this post. If you have something to say, you’re welcome to say it over on the Vancouver Sun’s pages, but I’m making an editorial decision to shutter further comments on this post to prevent them from getting ugly.

(NOTE: After talking to my friend Jason, I wanted to offer this note: I acknowledge that the Morris Men were not pretending to be black people, nor were they trying to mimic black people in their performance. I also acknowledge that as the person who lacked context, the onus was on me to try to gain that context. I hope I did that. My feelings do not trump cultural identity. At the same time, I think geography and location matter.)

I’ve seen a lot of things in Vancouver, but I never expected to see a group performing in blackface right outside my apartment.

I caught the Vancouver Morris Men as they performed on the plaza in the Olympic Village. A group of 8-10 middle aged white men in blackface played instruments, danced in circles and lines, sang songs, and performed routines with sticks. And oh yeah, they were in blackface.

I stood there, shaking with rage, completely gutted by the fact that no one else in this oh-so Liberal and progressive environment seemed to have a problem with what we were watching. It was just me, posting photos to Twitter, standing there with my arms crossed, mean-mugging the whole time while the audience clapped and cheered. I decided to stick around after the performance was over. I wanted to understand why this particular tradition was so important to them. I walked over to one of the performers as he was talking to a couple of women, and interrupted him mid-explanation.

He was explaining to one woman that the reason they performed this way was because of the class differences in society at the time the tradition started. Performance was frowned upon in upper class society, so the dancers darkened their faces with cork to disguise themselves.

“Do you understand that blackface is hurtful to some people?” I asked, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice.

“You’re not the first person who has complained or raised a concern about this,” he said, “but we’ve decided as a group that it’s important to honor the tradition, and that we’d keep performing in blackface.”

I could write more about the exchange, including the belligerent woman who shouted in my face that this was “older than Shakespeare” and that I was wrong to criticize the dancers because “(she) liked it”, and I could talk about the other dancer who, growing testy, tried to talk over me to try to silence me. I’d like to mention that a woman who said she descended from Holocaust survivors understood what I was saying, and opined that when something touches a person like this, it becomes an emotional response. But right now, I want to try to focus on a lesson.

When your tradition, when your art causes people pain, you have a responsibility as an artist, but what is that responsibility, and what is the correct response? Is it time to think of another way to honour your tradition without causing emotional damage? Should you be given a pass because your art is old and time-tested, or because it was the ways of your forefathers? What is your responsibility as a thinking, living, feeling member of the society you inhabit? You aren’t excused simply because you’re “just trying to have fun” or “just trying to be respectful to (your) history”.

Perhaps you’ve never had to face your biases in person. If that’s the case, then you’ve lived a sheltered and privileged experience. When a person comes to you with pain in their voice and tears in their eyes, it isn’t the time to cover your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and sing “LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU!”.

You may never call a black person a nigger, and the very idea of explicit racism may make your blood boil, but when you’re putting forth an image that leads a person who lacks the proper context to an unfavourable conclusion, it’s your responsibility to listen. If you are unwilling to listen, or if you decide that your art and your tradition mean more to you than another person’s stress and discomfort, then you are willfully flaunting your privilege. If you willfully flaunt your privilege, you deserve to be — and will be — called out on it. Do not feign outrage or surprise. Do not plead ignorance.

I know that change is hard. I know that you probably feel picked on and misunderstood. I am sorry for that, but at the same time — welcome to my world, buttercup. Do not try to tell me how hard it is to wear blackface (yes, one of the performers actually said this to me). But when you try to hide racist questionable behaviour or racist questionable representations under a cloak of tradition, or when you try to pass it off as little more than a quaint custom, it makes you look callous. It makes you look like a coward. If you descend from such a brave and proud people — and I don’t doubt that you do — do them the honour of finding a way to celebrate their meaning in the same spirit, but without such a literal interpretation that will, without a doubt, be easily misunderstood.

But most of all, listen. Listen to me when I tell you that I never expected to have my spirit violated as I was innocently walking to the market. Listen to me when I tell you that as a highly educated person that I freely understand the intellectual and historical context of your art, but that those responses go out the window when emotion comes into play. Do not invalidate my pain. Do not try to shout me down. Do not tell me I am wrong. Simply listen.

Here is how you can listen: stop talking. Here is how you can acknowledge what you’ve heard: repeat back what the person has said. Here is how you can start dialogue: when the person has finished speaking, thank them for expressing their opinion and sincerely apologize for causing harm. Here is how you can affect change: take the time to develop an understanding of the hurt you have caused, and reflect upon it. To do otherwise leads me to believe that you just don’t give a shit about other people, and I for one don’t want to believe that you could have such an insensitive disregard for someone you have never met.

Because you’re not really like that, are you?

If you put in the work, if you listen, reflect, and seek to affect change, you may find that your audience will appreciate your traditions more. You’ll gain a perspective that will make you better artists, and will make you better people. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all striving for?

(I’d like to send a huge thank you to Elaine Miller, who forwarded my tweet to a number of her activist friends. Thank you for helping to share my experience. I’d also like to thank everyone else who offered support, expressed outrage, and suggested solutions. I am feeling much better, much stronger because of you.)

23 thoughts on “On the Tyranny of Tradition

  1. They used the old “we’re honoring historical roots” card. Well, lots of things used to be part of our history, and thank goodness we’re done with them. There are other ways to honor the tradition of hiding identities without painting their faces black. Masks, face paint in a rainbow of colors etc… Seeing performers in blackface would’ve made me very uncomfortable also.

  2. I live in the UK where Morris dancing originated. Here it’s a living tradition and I’ve never seen a Morris man in blackface.

    • I’ve heard that too, Sarah. I’m starting to see it as a convenient excuse to justify keeping this practice in place.

  3. That looks like greasepaint, and the Morris dancers I saw in Toronto had their faces smudged with coal. They looked dirty, not like blackface.

    That performance would make me feel really uneasy. “Historical roots” doesn’t cut it for me either.

  4. I’m dumbfounded….but when I think about it, Vancouver may pride itself in being multicultural but it still is pretty conservative in a lot of ways. (I live here too).

  5. I understand that Morris dancing evolved due to the influence of the Moors on European society; hence the blackface.

  6. My partner made the following comment about the issue on my FB page, and I’ve copied it here as I’m finding the idea that the traditions are separated as problematic.

    “If minstrel shows hadn’t come along, I suspect that this wouldn’t appear as racist, unlike zwarte pieten. (That’s me assuming there actually isn’t any link in the origin of Morris dancing in moorish race parody, etc, etc.) However, given that there was already significant overlap between Morris dancing and minstrel shows by the early 20th century and that consequently, most troupes abandoned the practice of blackface, I’m going to go with “it’s racist”. (Note what they were calling it in parts of the UK in the 1920s: http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/avenue/pd49/morris/notes/helm/cawte57.htm )”

    • Thanks for passing along your partner’s comment. I’m still on the fence about this. I know it was hurtful to me, but now I’m questioning intent and the reaction of one of the dancers and one of the audience members. I think those negative reactions and attempts to shout me down were absolutely informed by racism.

  7. This style of dancing is called “border morris. This Vancouver team is “famous” for bringing back the border style back to England. If you google image border Morris, you’ll see that different teams handle face paint in different ways and with different colours. As a side fact, Persians black their faces during their New Years celebrations also known as “Norouz” (sp?).

    • Hi Dee, thanks for your comment. I linked to the Border Morris in this entry, and before I wrote it, I read as much about it that I could find online. Why would you assume I hadn’t? Why would you assume that this knowledge would change my experience?

  8. I posted the following on a British Columbia Black Professionals site:
    Interestingly, when I first saw this posting yesterday and looked at the images, I did not get the same reaction as with the Black Peter fiasco. In the latter case it is an obvious affront to African people, while the Morris tradition ” appears” to be derived from a legitimate practice having nothing to do with overt racism towards us. That said, I don’t know enough about Morris Dancing to make any informed opinion yet. However, I do believe that the article by Cecily Walker was brilliant and she makes some very strong arguments. I agree with her that time, place and context can definitely make a difference in the appropriateness of any tradition. Given the historical connotations of Blackface in North America (and other parts of the world), I believe that it is time to eliminate it completely. Traditions change and morph into different things every day, so we should always attempt to embrace the positivity of traditions and cut out the parts that cause more damage than good.

  9. The MossyBack Morris Men (Seattle, WA) – http://www.mossyback.com -faced a similar predicament many years back when we were first exploring Border Morris in the early 1990′s. Our understanding of the tradition came via VHS footage of some English Border teams who, for reasons explained in the article, used blackface as part of their kit. We danced out this way at least once and, if I recall correctly, felt very much unease…and creepy.

    The US, Canada and Britain each have had its own history of racism and I would venture that each country’s way of dealing with it is unique. In the US, slavery, the Civil War and now, modernity, would rule out blackface in most all situations. Our team decided to go psychedelic and bizarre rather than use a disguise that suggested anything remotely racist. I think, as a team, we all felt much better during our performances as a result of this simple kit change. We only had to explain the dance and the custom rather than try to defend the distraction of unintended racism. IMHO, VMM should put away the cork and acknowledge both others feelings and the 21st Century. (the views expressed are my own).

    • I think what you said here about deciding to change to prevent any misunderstanding is an important point to make. I don’t know what will come of this situation, but I’m hoping they’re at least a little more willing to consider a different presentation for future performances.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • For the record, I’ve known various members of Vancouver Morris Men (VMM) for over 20 years, and have danced with them on dozens of occasions. I can say with authority that these men are not remotely racist. Their decision to blacken their faces is based on Morris tradition and not a demonstration of racial bias. Does this justify their decision? Is the tradition worthy of keeping? Well that depends on one’s perspective.

      See: http://www.coconutters.co.uk/history.htm
      http://www.shropshirebedlams.co.uk/

      As I mentioned in an earlier post, our team (MossyBacks, Seattle, WA) decided not to use blackface for many reasons. We were uncomfortable with not only being misunderstood, but feared the worst if we danced for a racially mixed crowd. For us, Morris tradition was trumped by comfort level. It just didn’t feel right. Would it feel better in Canada or the UK?…that’s not for us to decide. Avoiding the type of controversy generated by Ms. Cecily’s blog was, for the MossyBacks, paramount.

      The way in which VMM perform is VMM’s decision alone. Those who jump into the fray and imply racism, as many who have responded to this blog have, should do some research before offering their opinions. Despite it all, I personally hope that VMM give serious reconsideration to their kit and begin to generate new traditions based on our time and place, not only to avoid knee jerk controversy, but to take Morris into the 21st Century.

  10. As a member of the Bowen Island Black Sheep I’ll relate an incident in Seattle during the Northwest Folklife Festival where the Sheep were performing.
    Two of us entered the beer enclosure and were immediately questioned by three twentyish African Americans. They were fascinated by our kit so we explained what we were and way we look like we do. There was not the slightest hint of animosity coming from them in fact they thought us rather funny. A while later their friend joined them and looking at us said “I’ve never seen a honky dumb enough come to America dressed as a n*****”. Everyone within earshot exploded in laughter.

    As seen on our website the Black Sheep now use multi coloured facial disguises. Why piss off your audience when you’re trying to entertain them?

  11. Your comment “welcome to my world, buttercup” seemed to say the most to me. Think that over. What is your world? Are you in Selma, Alabama in 1961 or are you in liberal Vancouver watching a performance you don’t understand? You are carrying rage about what happened in your country to another country. When I consider what happened and happens in America, that makes me angry, too. Racism is sickening. But you were watching a performance that had historical roots that had nothing to do with racism. Bottom line: You didn’t understand the background. I say this with kindness, though you might not read it that way. I think you are viewing an English cultural tradition through an American lens. I also suspect you got the reaction you did from people because they were reacting to your anger.

    • I’ll point out that we’re not in England. Oh sure this is British Columbia, but look around you as you walk through the streets of Vancouver. All of our traditions shift daily. Some comfortably, some uncomfortably.

      As you no doubt came from the Vancouver Sun piece, I’ll remind you that despite the author’s attempt to get me to call this event and the dancers racist, I refuse to do so. It isn’t for me to say what was in the hearts of these men when they made the decision to continue to perform in blackface. Yet geography matters. There are other Morris troupes throughout North America — not just in the Southeast –who no longer perform in blackface. As someone else said in a previous comment, why tick off your audience when your ultimate goal is to entertain?

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