Explaining Blackface Abroad

One writer explores whether an Israeli Defense Force lieutenant's "Obama style" Facebook photo that caused a recent backlash had different connotations overseas.

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"Black Petes," a holiday tradition in the Netherlands (Thinkstock)

Israeli Lt. Sacha Dratwa, who oversees social media for the Israel Defense Forces, recently faced backlash for posing in what he called "Obama style" blackface in a Facebook photo and ultimately closed his account, saying, "I'm not racist."

Oh. Are all of us in America missing something?

Writing for Slate, Dale Cockrell explores the issue, asking, "Does blackface carry racist connotations outside the United States?" His short answer: Yes.

... While the conventions of blackface have their roots in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, its racist caricatures didn't take long to spread abroad. Of course Americans weren't the first to wear dark makeup to play black characters -- white people were made up to portray darker-skinned people at least as early as the times of Shakespeare's Othello. But it was only in the mid-19th century that white performers like Thomas D. Rice established the conventions of blackface and the minstrel show, which typically featured white performers doing songs, dances, and comedy while acting out exaggerated racial stereotypes. These performances began in America, where they toured all over the country, but they quickly spread to Western Europe and especially the British Empire ...

While most blackface traditions died out shortly after the establishment of the Jewish state in Israel, elements of blackface occasionally linger there. As the New York Timespoints out, an Israeli comedy team featured in Dratwa's YouTube channel produced a satirical skit in recent years that mocked liberal attitudes toward African Jews with "Kazabubu the Jewish Cannibal," a stereotypical African tribesman portrayed by an actor in blackface. American Jews also have a long and complicated relationship with minstrelsy. Al Jolson, a sort of Jewish Elvis and star of The Jazz Singer, who has been honored with postage stamps in Israel and in the United States, made his name as a minstrel performer but he was also known for standing up to discrimination against African-Americans.

Read more at Slate.

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