Brownfaced, Blackfaced, and the Limits of Multiculturalism

Brownfaced, Blackfaced, and the Limits of Multiculturalism

by Girish Daswani

To have a brownface is something of a fact for me. At least that’s what people (in North America) see when they speak to me, especially when negotiating public spaces. I am not seen as an individual with a nuanced spectrum of feelings or someone with valid reasons for speaking up against a perceived injustice. Instead, I am a specific type of person, a brownface character that others can and should manage – and usually, for the safety of everyone else. For example, I was recently upset when someone grabbed a seat which I had been patiently waiting for over 10 minutes at a campus café I frequent in downtown Toronto. When I told that older, white, lady that I had been waiting for this table for a very long time, she told me instead to find another seat because there were two of them and I was alone. She did not listen to my refusal, to my sense of frustration. She simply continued to hover over the table. I said, “No, I would rather not.” Others saw my inability to accept her response as an act of aggression. Another, younger white woman muttered under her breath “so violent, so violent.” I asked her what she meant. Surprised that I had spoken to her, she simply said “there is so much violence in what was said”. I agreed: “Yes, there is a lot of violence in the world today.” But I held back the rest of my words “towards indigenous peoples, people of color, poor people, people who are made to feel like outsiders…all the time” Instead, I repeated: “I had been waiting patiently for this table and I only have two hours without my son to read a book, quietly, by myself.” She looked surprised, not knowing what to say: she clearly wanted to walk away from this uncomfortable conversation that had started with her disapproval of me – the brown, “violent”, man. While I had turned to speak to her, the old woman motioned to her husband and they grabbed the table from me. Older people can be privileged and rude like that, just like young people. I told the elderly couple that they could have been better behaved (knowing that the table was not mine now). The old woman turned to me and said: “Where is your drink – if you really wanted to sit here.”

I was upset and about to walk away from the situation (cause what else is there to do?) when a young man with long blonde hair and a beard – let’s call him the “white savior” – spoke from an adjacent table and said, “stop being so aggressive… there are other chairs you can sit on… leave them alone.” I told him that this had nothing to do with him (or there being other chairs), that I was, in fact, leaving, but that now the conversation was between us – two men, one white, one brown. I was tired and upset. He was calm, self-confident and visibly saw himself to be the savior of an old, white, couple, protecting them from an aggressive brown man. The odds were against me. The die had been cast. He then told me to leave – the space was no longer welcoming for me. He threatened to call security. I had quickly became the “threat” he so easily summoned with his words and assumed me to be. When all along I was simply waiting patiently and then telling an old (white) couple off for being rude. Not knowing everything that had gone on before, he only had to “assume” to know, from a position of privilege, as someone who (all his life) had always claimed the national space as his. It was certainly not about a lack of intelligence – for this young man seemed intelligent enough. And it was not a clear story about racism – for we never always know whether a misunderstanding is caused by racial discrimination or whether it comes from an unconscious bias that stems from privilege and is never consciously acknowledged. What if I was white, or a woman, or both, and doing the same thing – would the younger, white woman have mumbled the word “violent”? Would the long-haired white man have called me “aggressive” and seen me as “threatening”? I doubt so. In fact, when, shocked that he so quickly threatened to call for campus police, I called out race and called him a “white man”, he called me a “racist”.

The question we should ask is: what gave this young savior the confidence to act the way he did? What gave him the confidence to assume so much about me and to escalate the situation into one where I became “threatening” and, thus, someone who needed to be removed from the café by campus security? How did me patiently waiting for a table, then demanding my right to a seat at the table once it was free, led to me becoming a security threat to this public space?

It is important to understand the reasons that allow people to act on such superficial understandings of the world – to be able to treat others as if they were limited to their racial caricature. Before we can understand black or brown face (historically or culturally), we have to first understand what it means for some people to be able to c­laim the (nationalist, public) space and the bodies in that space as their own. If we understand this, we will better understand why black men and women in America get killed every day: why they are immediately seen as a threat; why they are assumed to be violent for refusing to be treated with disrespect; and why security forces are called in to remove them from spaces that are seen as not theirs to inhabit – especially if they are upset about something or not behaving according to a positionality of submission. ‘Yes, sir… sorry, sir” is the expected reply. Should we properly reflect on the roots, and the implications of these questions, we will understand the fears that led to Brexit and to the rising xenophobia in many parts of the world. We will understand why settler colonialism is assumed to be always-already settled and how this process (its making and re-making) still takes place. We will better understand why some countries celebrate colonialism disguised as nationalism. And we will understand why many people do not usually see this as a matter of “race” or “racism”.

It is hard for a dominant culture to unpack years of being able to claim a privileged nationalist space and to not see “race” or power and how they operate together. That does not make it right. It is also true that people tend to point out the “racism” evident in such examples. But I would argue, like Ghassan Hage in his 2000 White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, that such incidents are not so clearly (or simply) about “racism”. Instead, Hage argues, they point to the exclusivist nationalist agenda at work. One that is about the “self,” who holds a privileged position in defining what “home” is, and how this self comes to define (and manage) the “others” who share the national space with them. In what follows, I want to unpack these hegemonic cultural influences that have a hold over people through the example of “blackface” and reflect on how the faces we carry continue to be caricatures for a script that was written a long, long, time ago.

Blackface in America and Ghana

To understand blackface (or brownface) in a comparative context, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which actors from different cultural backgrounds adopted the superficial identity effects of specific “Others”. The mid-19th century saw the birth of the popular American minstrel genre in which white performers used their limited observations of the behavior and culture of Southern plantation slaves to create plays for a white audience. These were white Americans from the northern states (before the Civil War) comparing freed African-Americans in the North with African slaves in the South. For these Americans, blackface was tied to the unresolved history of racial exploitation, segregation and the negative stereotyping of people of African descent. Whites created minstrelsy to represent blacks because they had the power to do so even though, or because, the images they represented were insulting and degrading of a whole population of people. These images became popularized through children’s books (Image 1) and staged plays in the colonies – including the Gold Coast, now Ghana.

Image 1: Cover of the 1870s (?) children’s book The Funny Little Darkies

In her 2001 book Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre, Catherine Cole shows how throughout the 19th century, blackface was performed in countries such as Jamaica, Nigeria, South Africa, India, China, Indonesia and Australia – to different effects and outcomes. From the 1930s, Hollywood films recreated American minstrel theatrical conventions (“blackface”; also think Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop cartoons) and these films were distributed throughout the colonial world. After the American Civil War, African Americans blackened their faces and entered the minstrel field to be accepted on the American stage. When European immigrants started coming in larger numbers to New York, blackface offered Irish, Italian, and Jewish newcomers with a means of becoming “American”. For the blackening of their faces erased their own ethnic differences and aligned them with the hegemonic culture of “whiteness”. This shared production of national space in racial terms was generated from a loss of belonging and indigenous ancestry and by the desire to claim a white nationalist identity. To look closely at blackface through a racial geography enables us to deduce how racialized peoples were coproduced in and by the landscape of nationalism (see M.J. Saldaña-Portillo 2016’s Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States).

What happens when non-American countries use black or brown face? Let us take the comparison between African-Americans who put on blackface to work on the American stage and Africans who put on blackface as part of a local theater circuit in the then Gold Coast (now Ghana). If the former were aware of the racism involved and had little choice but to adorn blackface to be accepted within mainstream theatre, the latter never saw blackface as racist. Instead, blackface was incorporated into local “concert party theatre” performances that brought very different coastal lifestyles (in this case, British/American colonial lifestyles) to remote areas of these (then) colonized countries (see Cole’s book mentioned above). It developed within a very different constellation of power – meant for the ordinary person and those less powerful than the colonial elite of the time. It is in cases such as these, when blackface becomes about speaking back to power – and to the hierarchies of oppression that seek to marginalize these people – rather than about a confirmation of these same structures, that black- or brownface does something different. As Cole shows, Ghanaian performers were keen on emulating (not white but) African-American artists through blackface as a form of subversion (capitalizing on the extravagances of colonized behavior) and as racial affinity through their local theatre productions.

Yet, colonialism is still present as an important factor in producing a large reservoir of cultural meaning attached to race in countries like Ghana. Another important factor Cole considers in her examination of blackface in the specific context of 1930s and 1940s colonial Ghana is that it did not have a strong nationalist paradigm. Instead, there was a heightened interest in the intellectual work and lives of black people in other parts of the colonial world. It is therefore unsurprising that artists and musicians in Africa and amongst the Black diaspora were learning and borrowing from each other, while creating their own specific brand of resistance and artistic production.

If the minstrel tradition of “concert party theatre” helped foreground unequal power relations between colonizer and colonized, present Ghanaian artists such as Wanlov the Kubolor purposefully adopts the character of the Minstrel, through satire and parody, to critique the Ghanaian government and its abuse of power. His latest album “Red Card: The Minstrel Cycle” refers to the showing of a red card to Ghana’s corrupt politicians as well as to his role as a joker or minstrel who uses humour to tell the uncomfortable truth to people in power. This brings us to our next example of post-colonial Singapore.

Brownface in Singapore

Some (e.g. a certain anthropologist in Singapore) might argue that there is no local register or Asian equivalent for blackface or brownface. That when it happens in countries like Singapore, it is merely following a cultural tradition of innocently adopting the characteristics and persona of others – like in a staged play with make-up and costumes or during spirit-possession, when other ethnic voices are allowed into the hosts’ body. However, such a narrative removes the nationalist frame and politics from view. We need to understand, in contexts such as the one that currently prevails in Singapore, the imagined privileged relation between a fantasized, hegemonic “race” and the national space that is conceived as one’s own (over years of nation-building). Singapore has a bureaucratic and top-down national classification for “Race”: “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others” (CMIO) and practised policy interventions to maintain the status quo of a Chinese majority, which is roughly three quarters of the country’s population (see Chua 2003).

Image 2: E-Pay ad, summer 2019

Image 2, which dates from the summer 2019, was part of the Singapore government’s advertisement (now withdrawn) for an electronic-payment initiative. What had started off as a representation of different racial groups in Singapore, on the basis of distinct racial classifications adopted from British colonialists by a state long dominated by a single political party (PAP), turned into a one-man show. It featured a Singaporean Chinese actor dressed up as four characters, including a Malay woman wearing a headscarf and an Indian man. When playing the Indian man, the actor had his face darkened and his hair curled. I would argue that this example is better defined as a practice of what Hage (2000) calls “nationalist exclusion” rather than simply about “race” (although they are connected).

When YouTuber Preetipls and rapper Subhas, two Singaporean artists of Tamil descent, performed a satirical song, “K. Muthusamy”, calling out a Chinese cultural hegemony that would allow an advertisement that used brownface to be acceptable, and questioning the normalization of such practices in wider Singaporean society, they were demonized by the media for provoking racial hatred and their song banned by the government for disrupting ‘racial harmony’.

According to sociologist Chua Beng Huat, “harmony” in Singapore is “used as a repressive device for pre-empting public debate and negotiation of issues and difficulties that face all multiracial societies… the result is a ‘racial harmony’ that is minimalist, never going beyond visual familiarity and overtly recognisable differences” (Chua 2003, 75). This colonial-inspired and nationalistic emphasis on inter- rather than intra- racial/cultural relations creates a minimalist understanding of tolerance and allows the government to repress any discontent with the discourse of “race” through a defense of the ideological efficacy of ‘racial harmony’.

Whether you agree with Preetipls and Subhas’ use of satire and parody to speak back to their minority experience and to the imbalance of power, which is common in global hip hop and rap, it certainly did not help anyone that a conversation was not allowed to even begin. Instead, the Singaporean artists were labeled troublemakers and their attempts to raise awareness (as uncomfortable it was for some) about structural racism were ignored.

Rather than shut down these conversations, countries should acknowledge the limits of their models of “multiculturalism” and/or “multiracialism” – that they come from not from the minority or indigenous groups they try to blanket with this term, but from the very colonial and nationalist strategy of segregating and then making fit the “parts that make a whole”. This is a strategy that (1) hides the hegemonic nationalist agenda whereby a majority group assumes that all these parts (ethnic groups) are “equal” (or homogeneous) and can be compared on an equivalent basis and (2) erases the ongoing power imbalance, the history of colonialism, and the present practices of subordination and discrimination that continue without any real acknowledgment.

Hide-My-Face and the Limits of Sentimentality

“I ran to the rock to hide my face: the rock cried out, no hiding place!”

In the Preface of his memoirs Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin (1984) writes about the history of white America, the “accumulated rock of ages” that held him captive, which was a part of his inheritance, that he had to “challenge and claim… Otherwise, the rock claimed me” (xix). We need to ask ourselves: What have we all inherited through imperialism and how can we be more than this inheritance? When the Singaporean artists called out the racism that comes from Chinese privilege, they were accused of being “racist” and a potential threat to “racial harmony”. Similarly, when I called out the “white savior’ at that Toronto café for being patronizing and for unjustly calling me “aggressive,” he called me a “racist”. In both these distinct cases, we were refusing to allow a specific colonial inheritance to re-play itself. In response to the push-back, members of both dominant groups expressed what Baldwin calls “Sentimentality” – “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion… the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel.” Because fragile feelings of sentimentality tend to also be the affective dimension of nationalism only reserved for certain peoples. Tears have been shed and anger expressed (on different sides). But the tears of sentimentality – and we can think of many politicians around the world who have shed a tear for history’s violent act of tearing asunder – betray an aversion to experience and to any real attempt to understand the complexity of experiences of those who are not in the majority and who are only included as part of a hegemonic nationalist identity. It is not surprising that those who actually wanted to have a conversation about “race” in Singapore were those who had been negatively affected by racism at one point in their lives – irrespective of their race. And that a majority of Chinese Singaporeans who came to the defence of the talented siblings had spent time overseas in Euro-American countries and experienced racism first-hand as an “Asian” minority.

What do these different examples tell us? Rather than the mis-placed heroism of white saviors, politicians, and myopic nationalists that only further reiterates the nature of racial categorizations and the bureaucratic order (cage) of things, we need to acknowledge the narrow framework that people are operating within when speaking about and engaging with multicultural(racial)ism. We need to acknowledge that the problems of such a model emerge from a colonial past that continues to be present and that haunts our understandings of “difference” as distinct races or cultural types. It is not that this (colonial) history is actually forgotten. Rather, it has been displaced, occluded from view, or rendered inappropriate for use. It is what Ann Stoler calls a “colonial aphasia” or an “active disassociation” – an occlusion of knowledge from the post-colonial nationalist story that is told (see her 2016 book Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times). In countries such as Singapore, colonialism is celebrated through a similar practice of occlusion – where it disassociates the violent aggression of colonialism from its very founding. And those who do not conform to an expected practice of normative multicultural/racial habitus – those who oppose racism or give voice to ongoing oppression and injustice – are labeled aggressive or threats to national security.

Returning to my experience at the café, to hide my face behind this colonial history, which people try to erase or celebrate, was no longer possible. I had to call it out even if it meant that others were offended. I could not allow the rock to claim me. Yet, in other contexts, to call out privilege or strategies of nationalist exclusion is to suffer the consequence of a violent, national, “evil eye”.

How else, then, are we to imagine ways of being together and being otherwise? I propose disrupting “multiculturalism” and “multiracialism” which suggest that the units or parts of the whole can be compared on an equivocal basis. This assumption of same-ness points to a politics of “recognition” – as a relationship to the modern State that becomes an offer for inclusion but that transpires only in terms of state recognition and according to the terms of a cultural hegemonic force. The “single nature, many cultures (races)” assumption of multicultural(rac)ism reinforces the Euro-American idea of single societies or races that can be compared on some level of equivalence, but which ignores the ways in which we are all (while distinct) also, always, already, connected ( Strathern 1997; De la Cadena 2015 ). Instead, it puts undue emphasis on the “cultural” or “racial” differences that people supposedly possess and underemphasizes the ways in which people’s bodies and cultures overlap, interpenetrate and borrow from each other.

We do not need to have brown or black face to lovingly critique the countries we live in and the people who sometimes oppress us – even if these forms of refusal and response are experienced as uncomfortable for some. Likewise, expressions of love are not enough. For as Sara Ahmed writes, the “multicultural fantasy works as a form of conditional love, in which the conditions of love work to associate ‘others’ with the failure to return to the national ideal” (Ahmed 2004: 139). And neither can justice be defined in terms of sympathy or compassion. For public expressions of “acknowledgment” or “sympathy” are forms of sentimentality that can become performances that simply conceal the investment in reproduction of prestige and social class and do nothing to challenge the existing unequal power relations. Instead, we need to invest in a different kind of world through an openness to difference that lets our disagreements provide the basis for connection (Ahmed 2004: 141).

In other words, we are already intra-related even as we try to separate “others” from a hegemonic or dominant group. Once we realize that another’s person’s pain is also our own suffering – and when we act on that awareness – perhaps, things will change.

How do we act? Some suggestions:

  1. Think in terms of intersectionality.
  2. Acknowledge your (un)conscious biases and privileges. If you belong to a hegemonic racial group, (re)read Robin di Angelo’s work (including this article).
  3. Share the conversation space. Be mindful of the power relations involved in any situation or conversation: there are always imbalances of power in place when a person of privilege (including prestige and authority) speaks to another and when this ‘other’ is told not to speak or is told that they are “speaking out of turn”.
  4. Know your histories. Accept that while you may never understand the other person’s positionality, pain or point of view (because you are not them), you can read up about the historical and institutional ways in which the person who is speaking has been structurally oppressed and has a perspective that is valid.
  5. See the bigger picture. While you may not consider yourself “racist,” you can do more to acknowledge that there are institutional structures in place that exclude certain people from inhabiting the same spaces as you, with as much ease or comfort, and that certain things you may say or do will be experienced by a minority group as being offensive and even racist.
  6. Take a stand. Stand/speak up for and be an ally with others around you who experience structural violence and who are marginalized by a hegemonic culture. Take a bystander workshop or read about peaceful, efficient ways to be a bystander, both at work and in public spaces.
  7. Be kind. Always start from a place of kindness. Rather than competing with those in lesser positions of power who disagree with you – in order to prove your truth or demand your point of view is correct – accept that others are suffering and that you do not always have to be “right”.


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotions. New York: Routledge.  

Baldwin. James. 2012 [1955]. Notes of a Native Son.

Chua, Beng Huat. 2003. “Multiculturalism in Singapore: An Instrument of Social Control” Race and Class 44(3): 58-77.

Cole, Catherine M. 2001. Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of practice across Andean worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hage, Ghassan. 2000. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. New York: Routledge.

Saldaña-Portillo, María Josefina. 2016. Indian Given: Racial geographies across Mexico and the United States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Stoler, Ann L. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham
and London: Duke University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn 1997. “Division or Comparison?” The Sociological Review 45, (1): 42-63.

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto

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