Racial Humour in the Postracial: A Critical Race Africology of Canadian Blackface Incidents

Contemporary Canadian blackface—that is, instances where white persons darken their skin with make-up to represent black persons in the context of fun and humour—have become a notable phenomenon, particularly on Canadian university campuses and in entertainment venues. These incidents are particularly interesting because 1) they are visually reminiscent of, and often compared with, blackface minstrelsy performances of a more overtly racist historical period, and 2) mainstream discourse in Canada suggests that racism has had little relevance in its history, and that whatever racism there may have been has been overcome.  Both of these ideas emerge in the contentious public debates that take place each time a blackface incident occurs. 

This research project sees contemporary Canadian blackface as a particularly generative site for understanding the competing ways in which social subjects in Canada define, identify and justify racism, ostensible humour, and its intersections.  It is part of my broader research interest in understanding the ways in which racially inequitable social structures and discourses of race organize how we come to know ourselves, ascribe meaning, and exercise agency for social change in schools and broader educational contexts.   

The objectives of this research are therefore to 1) analyze the discursive context(s) within which these blackface incidents are performed, articulated, justified, and apologized for in contemporary Canada; 2) explore how claims to humour function rhetorically to allow particular forms of racial knowing and not knowing; 3) understand how the colonial tropes of racism on which these acts seem to draw are, or are not, learned, recognized, and forgotten; 4) explore the diverse ways in which these acts are experienced by black persons amid dominant claims to the diminishing significance of race. 

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Data sources are: 

1) print and electronic media articles about Canadian blackface incidents.

2) reader comments on these articles, where available.

3) semi-structured interviews with administrators, staff, and faculty at university sites where blackface incidents have occurred recently. 

4) focus groups with students at university sites where blackface incidents have occurred recently. 

The study will:

  1. contribute to the literature on post-racialist discourse, drawing attention to the Canadian national context that is often overlooked in this literature.

  2. increase our understanding of the roots of racial humour, and the social relations that produce blackface in Canada.   

  3. make recommendations about how the blackface issue might be more effectively addressed on university campuses. 

  4. increase our understanding the strategies that black communities on university campuses and beyond use to challenge blackface and to mitigate its negative impacts on them.  

Contact: Philip Howard, PhD

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