Blackface in comedy is never 'just a joke' – it's a tool of oppression
Amid the blackface in comedy controversy, comedian Ava Vidal addresses why racism can never be 'just a joke' – and those Harry Enfield comments.
By: Ava Vidal
I have spent the last 24 hours being harassed on social media after I appeared in a segment on The Today Programme on Radio 4.
I was invited on to discuss the use of blackface in comedy after several streaming services pulled programmes featuring the racist practice in the wake of the worldwide (continuing) Black Lives Matter protests. Some of the comedy shows pulled included League of Gentlemen, Little Britain and Lee Francis’s Bo Selecta.
I was to appear alongside Harry Enfield, a comedian that had previously performed in blackface in several of his TV shows, and he was there to defend his use of it. Even though I had been a fan of his work for years, somehow this had passed me by.
Before I continue, I will explain the origins of blackface as I am stunned by the responses to my participation in the discussion just how many people don’t know, and are clearly too lazy to look it up. Blackface originated in the 1830s when white people would put jet black make up on their faces and mock Black people for entertainment.
They would distort our features; often having huge oversized bright red lips painted on and exaggerate the size of Black women’s backsides. It normalised the dehumanisation of Black people in order to justify slavery and the brutal treatment we received including beatings, rapes and murder and to justify the system the economic system implemented that took resources, labour and land from Black people with sometimes little but mostly no compensation.
During the discussion hosted by Nick Robinson, Enfield decided to let the listeners know where he, a white man, thought the line should be drawn. During this explanation, he used the word "c**n". Just like that, he dropped a racial slur on breakfast radio without any hesitation at all.
It caused outrage in some quarters whilst others couldn’t see the problem as he had condemned its use. For me, this demonstrates how far into our lexicon some racist words have become embedded, so much so that people don’t even recognise them to be such. That is why black and POC need to lead these conversations, as racism is an issue that affects us.
You cannot swear on daytime television or radio whatever the context and everyone accepts this. But the amount of people arguing that racial slurs are just fine is troubling.
Enfield then went on to describe how he’d decided to portray Mandela as a drug dealer cause "he looked around and those were the stereotypes of black men he could see". I found it an odd choice to make and so I confronted him about it.
I asked why he felt the need to use his comedy to reinforce stereotypes as opposed to subverting it or challenging them. I also found it interesting that the other characters he described as performing as, such as Margaret Thatcher, weren’t denigrated in the same way.
Women are often accused of sleeping their way to the top so why didn’t he portray Margaret Thatcher as a ‘hooker’ for example. All the white characters he plays are caricatures, exaggerations of what they are known for.
The film Birth of A Nation was a racist propaganda film where many white actors donned blackface and portrayed black people as savages that were violent and sexually aggressive to white women. This stereotype led to the lynching of many black men who were hung on trees and castrated. It led to the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till who was beaten to death for wolf-whistling at a white woman who later admitted she had been lying.
When David Walliams puts on his suit to play Desiree Duvere, a Black woman with a huge backside he is not thinking of Sarah Baartman, who was tortured for having that body shape.
When Leigh Francis blacks up and impersonates Trisha using a Caribbean accent and screaming ‘rice and peas’ in an act that bears no resemblance to the woman herself, he’s not thinking of Black parents sending their kids to school to be abused in the same way that my generation was due to Jim Davidson’s Chalky character.
There is a trickle-down effect. When Harry Enfield portrays Nelson Mandela as a drug dealer supplying contraband to kids, he’s not thinking about the Black men stopped and searched disproportionately and often violently.
Blackface isn’t a joke, it is a tool of oppression.
Comedy can be great when it creates tension and everyone is on the edge of their seat, but not when it is racial tension. Because I can tell you as a black person, when racist jokes are being told in UK comedy clubs, far from being on the edge of their seats, most people are sitting back and are very comfortable with it.
Racism isn’t a joke, it literally destroys lives. Racism kills. Yet white comedians are seen as being edgy when they engage in it and black ones that complain about it are seen as ‘difficult’ and ‘troublemakers’ and we lose work.
There is a high profile black comedian who has been banned from speaking about race on social media by his agent so when he’s hurt or angry about something he sends it to me to post online. This has to stop. It is intimidation.
When actor John Boyega acknowledged he may lose his career for speaking out at a Black Lives Matter protest we knew he wasn’t exaggerating. We have seen it happen to many of our peers.
The industry must stop making us choose between dignity and survival. And to frame these discussions as ‘debates’ whilst hardly letting Black guests speak is unacceptable. Our humanity is not up for debate. We have a long way to go.
I grew up watching Harry Enfield and he was a comedy hero of mine. They say never meet your heroes. I would extend that to say never do radio phone-ins with them either.
Ava Vidal is a comedian and writer. RadioTimes.com has reached out to Harry Enfield and the BBC for comment.