Why depicting 'brownface' characters is no joke

03 Aug 2019

Straits Times, 3 Aug 2019, Why depicting 'brownface' characters is no joke
Lim Sun Sun For The Straits Times 

E-payment firm Nets has been excoriated for its most recent advertising campaign to promote cashless payments, with politicians and netizens calling out the campaign as racist and offensive. Disseminated online and in hawker centres, the advertisement featured Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew portraying four characters, including a woman in a tudung and a man with visibly darker skin.
The ad was quickly labelled "brownface" by critics and drew responses, including from YouTuber Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas Nair who produced an online rap video condemning it.
Police reports have since been made against both the controversial advertising campaign and the rap video. The ensuing furore raises the question of why "brownface" is such an affront to begin with. Why has Chew's seemingly innocuous portrayal of a Malay makcik and an Indian "uncle" stirred such an outcry?
To better understand the opposition to "brownface", we need to set it against the historical backdrop of blackface, the discriminatory representations of African Americans that originated in the United States in the early 19th century.
Blackface was most commonly used in American minstrel theatre performances, featuring white actors slathering black greasepaint on their faces, wearing woolly wigs and decrepit outfits to complete the look. They sought to depict African slaves in derogatory frames, thereby underlining their inferior station in society.
Theatre companies relied on well-worn negative stereotypes, representing blackface characters as morally bereft individuals who were strikingly imbecilic, slovenly, superstitious, timid and depraved. These blackface minstrel shows were not confined to the US and, in fact, toured Europe in the mid-19th century, thus spreading their racist trope.
In the Netherlands, for example, Santa Claus is usually depicted with an African assistant known as Zwarte Piet or Black Pete. Believed to have been influenced by these minstrel shows, Black Pete is a blackface character with exaggeratedly thick lips and wearing large gold earrings. The country's Christmas celebrations have traditionally included parades featuring hundreds of white people dressed in blackface. Research suggests that Black Pete was popularised in a mid-19th century children's book and inspired by a slave purchased in Cairo by Dutch royalty.
Today, Black Pete is decried as a grim reminder of the country's involvement in the slave trade and the movement to discontinue this unsavoury Christmas tradition has gained momentum.
Black Pete remains a stubborn anachronistic vestige of these minstrel shows, whereas most blackface iconography has gradually faded in popularity as countries worldwide have progressively denounced racial discrimination.
While blackface has appeared in varied incarnations around the world, what unifies these representations is their capacity to denigrate black and dark-skinned people, serving them up as crude, campy and unidimensional caricatures with no other purpose than to entertain.
Therein lies the link to "brownface". In darkening his skin, slapping on a wig and donning a tudung, Chew's portrayals harked back to the crass bigotry of the minstrel shows, leading many netizens to remark "Brownface? In 2019?".
Indeed, research on ethnic representations in film and television content in Singapore has found that minorities are similarly pigeonholed.
As scholar Kenneth Paul Tan has identified, Malays tend to be portrayed as buffoons, Indians as disagreeable and fearsome, and Eurasians as shallow and unintelligent. Minority characters in Singapore productions are introduced and plumbed for their comedic value in narratives dominated by Chinese characters.
Fundamentally, such stereotypes are exercises in reductionism and diminution. Not only did the Nets ad use skin colour as an expedient shorthand for our ethnic minority groups, but it also implied that minorities cannot represent themselves, or are so simplistic that they can be easily represented by others.
When the richness and diversity of an entire ethnic group is reduced to their skin colour, that denial of individuality is dehumanising. When the complexity and sophistication of an entire culture is condensed into negative stereotypes, that disavowal of heritage is demoralising.
Blackface or "brownface", media representations matter. When media portrayals of diverse age groups, ethnicities or gender traffic in tired stereotypes, they propagate and entrench superficial conceptions of differences that do not deepen mutual understanding. And when members of the ethnic majority engage in facile depictions of ethnic minorities, the act is doubly marginalising.
Singapore has made significant strides in building a cohesive society that honours and champions racial equality.
The recent survey findings from a study of race, religion and language carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies and racial harmony advocacy group OnePeople.sg offer reason to be sanguine. Most people, including minorities, perceive little to no discrimination and social exclusion in public spaces. The tendency to stereotype a person based on race has also declined, with respondents who view race as indicative of another person's views or behaviour dropping from 46.8 per cent in 2013 to 35.2 per cent.
But even as we hail these encouraging trends, we must go further to strengthen our social fabric by enhancing interracial understanding that is built on a more profound appreciation of ethnic differences.
Be it television programmes, advertising campaigns or school textbooks, our media representations of all races, but especially of our minorities, can and must do better.
We cannot allow hollow and perfunctory characterisations of different ethnicities to obfuscate the critical conversations we need to have about discrimination, subtle or explicit.
In a world where algorithmic structures accelerate the spread of hate speech, our best safeguard against social fissures is human connections forged on the backs of meaningful interracial exchanges.

Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and a Nominated MP.