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.)