Racism and Intent

Recently, German football fans donned blackface for Deutschland’s match against Ghana. There’s a big hullabaloo, as many found this to be offensive.

A friend of mine asked, “How can this be racism when we didn’t even know that blackface was a thing?” He wondered how, when Germans largely are unaware of the historical context of blackface, the actions of these particular fans could be construed as racist. My initial response had been that racism is a question of intent, but offensiveness is about the impact of our actions, not the intent. I said that because blackface has a historical context, wearing it is offensive, even if the people doing so do not inherently feel that brown skin is inferior. His response: “…[M]ust we not also separate that when it comes to white people who have no history of enslaving Africans? …how can a German painting his face black be racism when we lack that context absolutely?”

That’s when I had to think harder about the question. And what I realized is that while overt racism is about intent, pervasive racism is subtle and often lacks intent. Much like a straight man who uses the term “gay” as a pejorative does not consciously consider himself to be superior to homosexual males, a white person who mocks Ghanaian citizens by wearing black paint on their face IS participating in racism, regardless of whether they’re familiar with how blackface was used to belittle and stereotype African-Americans.

When you paint your face black, you’re marginalizing Ghanaians, and all dark-skinned peoples, by reducing their cultural identity to the colour of their skin.

In short… yes, it’s racist, even if it wasn’t intended that way, and even if they lacked the historical context with which to understand just how offensive they were.