AP Explains: Brownface part of racist face makeup history

September 20, 2019 GMT
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FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2018, file photo, participants in the arrival of Sinterklaas, a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, in Monnickendam, Netherlands, dress up as Black Pete during an annu...
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FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2018, file photo, participants in the arrival of Sinterklaas, a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, in Monnickendam, Netherlands, dress up as Black Pete during an annu...

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The scandal surrounding Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after a yearbook photo showing him in brownface at a 2001 costume party was published is bringing attention to a practice that scholars say white people have been using for years to demean minorities.

In the picture, the then-29-year-old Trudeau is at an “Arabian Nights” party wearing a turban and robe, with dark brown makeup on his hands, face and neck. Like U.S. governors in Virginia and Alabama who have apologized for wearing blackface years before entering politics, Trudeau, who also has said he’s sorry, is facing the political crisis of his career.


The practice of members of a dominant population darkening their skin with makeup reinforces racial stereotypes and reduces Native Americans, Latinos, African Americans and other people of color based on skin tones and exaggerated physical features, social scientists say.

A look at how white people have used makeup to darken their complexion throughout history and in recent times to portray or mock members of racial minority groups:


William Shakespeare’s plays featured several minority characters but in the early days of their adaptions — and in the modern era — they were played by white male actors. These performers wore blackface or brownface to portray Othello, a Moor, in “Othello” and dark face makeup to depict the indigenous Caliban in “The Tempest.”

In 19th century U.S., performer Thomas Dartmouth Rice popularized minstrel shows by wearing blackface and adopting what he thought was African American vernacular. Other performers mimicked Rice and used blackface and stereotypes of African Americans to create one of the most popular forms of art in the nation’s history despite protests from black intellectuals and activists. Blackface would influence how white people would depict other ethnic groups in the U.S.

Hollywood would continue to allow white actors to wear racist makeup to portray black, Latino and Asian American characters through the 20th century instead of using actors of color. In the 1951 film adaption of “Othello,” white actor-director Orson Welles donned bronze makeup in his portrayal of Othello. Charlton Heston wore brownface to portray Mexican law enforcement officer Ramon Vargas in the 1958 movie “Touch of Evil.”


In 2012, an advertisement for Popchips starring Ashton Kutcher in brownface and using an exaggerated Indian accent was pulled following an outcry from Indian Americans. But blackface and brownface images aren’t only found in the U.S. and have shown up in media around the world.


The producer of a British documentary about Muslims came under criticism in 2017 for putting a white woman in brownface to immerse her into the life of a Pakistani Muslim family in Manchester, England. The documentary “My Week as a Muslim” required Katie Freeman to darken her skin, wear fake teeth and don brown contact lenses.

Earlier this year, Italian airline Alitalia pulled an advertisement promoting flights to Washington, D.C., in which an actor in blackface portrayed former President Barack Obama.

In Singapore, a recent e-payment advertisement featuring a Chinese comedian in brownface sparked criticism among some ethnic Indians and Malays. The company and the creative agency later apologized.


A leading television station in Peru was fined $26,000 for airing the popular comedy character Negro Mama on an entertainment show in 2013. The character is played by Jorge Benavides, who dons blackface, exaggerated lips and a flaring nose.

Earlier this year, a television personality for the Mexican-based Televisa network faced sharp criticism after dressing up in brownface and wearing a prosthetic nose to make fun of indigenous Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio. Televisa later deleted a tweet of a video of the television personality in brownface mimicking Aparicio, who attended the Oscars after being nominated for best actress.

The New York Times reported in August that a private channel in Libya came under fire earlier this year following a comedy skit in which an actress in blackface tells elevator passengers to “Watch my babies!” When passengers pull back a carriage cover, monkeys jump out. Activists say the skit was an example of racist stereotypes regularly seen in Arab comedy.


Every year, confrontations break out in the Netherlands over the helper of the Dutch version of Santa Claus. Known as Black Pete, the character is played by white people in blackface at children’s events. The tensions come as Dutch children anticipate the arrival of their country’s version of Santa Claus, which feature Black Pete. White people often daub their faces with black paint when they dress up to play the character. Opponents say the annual recreations of Black Pete promote racist stereotypes.

Throughout America’s history, white people have donned redface, worn fringe and feathers, and spoken in broken English as they “played” or portrayed Native Americans. But almost every week during football season, fans paint themselves “red” in honor of their Native American mascot names like the Washington Redskins. Native American activists have responded with protest and a #notyourmascot social media campaign.

In 2014, then-University of Louisville President James Ramsey issued an apology after the Courier-Journal published a photo of him and staff wearing fake mustaches, mantilla veils and sombreros. It was unclear if the photo was related to the annual Hispanic Heritage Month on campus.


This story has been corrected to show a U.S. governor in Alabama apologized for wearing blackface years before entering politics, not a governor in Mississippi.


Russell Contreras reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team.

Follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/russcontreras