Innocent Halloween costume or blackface?

U of Toronto students who dressed up as “Jamaican Bobsled Team” spark contentious debate

A townhall meeting was held at the University of Toronto last night to discuss a controversial Halloween costume choice that some have called “blackface.”

On October 29, a group of students dressed up as “The Jamaican Bobsled Team” for a Halloween pub night organized by three U of T colleges. Four men darkened their faces (and one lightened his face) to look like the characters from the movie Cool Runnings.

But some see the issue as more than just dress-up. The Black Students’ Association and the University of Toronto Students’ Union have criticized the costumes as insensitive and ignorant of historical context. David Topping of the Torontoist wrote, “We know Halloween is the time of year where you get to deviate a bit from what’s socially acceptable, but also it’s blackface.”

“Blackface” refers to a type of 19th century theatrical makeup used by white performers playing black characters. Blackface makeup, which can be traced back to the 1810s, exaggerated stereotypical features and proliferated racist attitudes and opinions.

Some U of T students don’t believe the Jamaican Bobsled Team costume was a manifestation of blackface. To them, it was “just a costume.” The U of T community is still abuzz with discussion.

Note: editorial to follow




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Innocent Halloween costume or blackface?

  1. What these guys did might have been insensitive or even stupid, but insensitivity and stupidity are not crimes. In fact, free action and free expression, even stupid acts and expressions, are basic rights.

    The world has real problems. Let’s not police Halloween costumes.

  2. I’ve just recently covered this issue on my own blog. I question if people have gone too far with this issue. I understand where the BSU is coming from. At the same time, I saw enough white males dressed as Tiger Woods/The Jamaican Bobsled Team. I personally didn’t find it offensive. At the same time I’m a white male, who considers himself politically uncorrect.

    I think this has become more of a cultural issue than anything. It seems the right to parody an ethnic or minority group has become a cultural norm within today’s society. Is this right? No. Does racism still exist. It seems to have transcended to a new form thanks to North American media and youth culture.

  3. so , i was a goth last year … should i be in the news to ?
    obviously these boys had no intentions of offending anyone.

  4. This sniffle offense is overblown bigtime, slow news day on a campus that has lost its voice in free expression. I suppose we aren’t supposed to ever see a geisha either.

    Instead of creating controversy, this was a great opportunity to share some sensitive history to a largely uninformed Canadian public, or at least these 4 men. But instead there was finger pointing and wails.

    Fail.. in human relations to the whiners… in a world at war, you can’t even cross the floor at a class costume party, or after and share some truth to the uneducated from your heart.

  5. What these guys did was NOT stupid, was NOT insensitive and was NOT a racial statement of any type. How many white people used a Barac Obama mask this year? How many people dressed as Mexican’s and made their skin darker to legitimize the character they portrayed? How many black people used a George W. Bush mask? It’s 2009 and this is behind us (as a society). What these guys did was try to have fun and portray characters from a funny movie. What made the whole thing more humourous was the only black guy played the only white guy as well. But it was all for fun! How many people watched that movie this summer where a white guy played a black guy who played a white guy (or visa versa). Same idea; for fun; shits & giggles. Everyone needs to let down their gaurd and have some honest fun for once in a while, really!

  6. I just saw this on the news and was disgusted! Not by the costume however, but by how people can be that ignorant. I am sure at the same party there was a Geisha girl there and I bet she was white and I haven’t heard any complaints from the Japanese Students Council??? And maybe there was a guy dressed up as a girl and I haven’t seen anything from the Gay students council either. I dressed up as a transformer this year. I was actually Bumblebee and I looked more like a Ferrari than a Chev Camaro. Man, I better defect and hide and change my name before the Tranformer Correctness student council comes after me. As the first post said, “The world has real problems. Let’s not police Halloween costumes.” Well said!

  7. At what point did Halloween become a politically correct holiday? If you make an impression of a person, does it constitute prejudice? Racism? Concentrate your efforts to “DO” more good. Eat some Mentos.

  8. There is blackface and then there is Halloween. Dressing up trying to match a character is called acting. Some of the media and students feeding the media should take it down a notch. This story is ridiculous and not newsworthy……especially on a significant day like Remembrance Day.

  9. GET OVER YOURSELVES….do white trash get offended, how about geishas girls, paris hilton, accident victims or anyone else pretending to be someone else for one evening?? Its halloween get real, people will do what they will. Why don’t these over reacting committee people put energy into real matters??? Did they also get bent out of shape over tropic thunder???NO!! They probably laughed about it…..and if they didn’t then they have some serious other issues to deal with personally..seriosly….LMAO!!!!!

  10. This is outrages that it is even making news. There are a lot of VERY good points made here today but I also, just to add a few more recall Whoopi Goldberg played a part in a movie years ago of a white man, Kanye West interrupted Taylor swift at the awards saying Beyonce deserved to win, why because she was black and Taylor Swift was white. NO, Not one person ever thought that he ment it that way, he just simply thought Beyonce deserved it more ……and if I saw the news correctly there was a man in the pic that was of dark skin who has made to look white why are we so upset that the white men painted them self dark and not the other way around. Why is there only ever the race card pulled when it is a white person going the other way? I am aware that there is still racism in the world, I do not agree with it but this is not the case in this situation, or any of the situations I have just listed. I do not feel that any one of the people involved should have to apologies to anyone for anything they did.

  11. This year for Halloween I shaved my head and painted it like a skull. I hereby apologise to any dermatologically challenged persons I may have inadvertently offended through my insensitivity.

  12. The amount of ignorance baffles me. It is 2009 and racism is still thriving. Due to the treatment of Blacks at the hands of Europeans/Whites in regards to blackface, it is and always will be offensive. Why does white culture insist on mocking Black culture?
    And why does that same culture refuse to pay attention to what’s going on and exercise common sense?

    The harm that blackface has caused regarding the portrayal of Black people is still relevant today. It is no different than the harm the “N” word causes or any other racist notion. Just because the era has changed does not mean the institution of racism is gone. It does not mean that the meaning behind blackface has been altered. This is extremely offensive and being in denial and getting defensive about it just proves that it is. Why defend something so adamantly if there is nothing wrong with it?

    Why is it so difficult for many white people in society to say, “I’m wrong, I didn’t mean to hurt anyone and I apologize for my actions.”

    Is it really that difficult to make amends? Because at the end of the day, the Black people who are being mocked based upon stereotypes of how they look, dress, act etc. cannot take their skin off. And why is being Black a “costume” anyways?

    Think about it…

  13. Please remember this townhall was not held to demonize the five students. It was to have an open conversation about blackface as a historical practice.

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  15. @ Todd Pettigrew

    “In fact, free action and free expression, even stupid acts and expressions, are basic rights.”

    That seems kind of ironic coming from the guy who just posted about how he actually edits and even deletes the comments on his blog here at Maclean’s that he finds, in his opinion, “offensive or off-topic.” (http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2009/11/09/lets-end-varsity-sport-now/)

    I believe that racism, even those acts of racism that an educated, white, university professor of English literature deems to be otherwise, continues to be a “real problem” in today’s world.

    In an article in the Globe and Mail, the student who awarded the prize apologized, saying he hadn’t realized that the costumes would cause offense. But after he educated himself about the history and meaning of blackface, he wrote that he “felt embarrassed and upset over my own ignorance in how potentially offensive something of this nature could be.”

    I’m impressed that this student took responsibility for his insensitivity, instead of trying to claim that since his intention hadn’t been to be offensive to anyone, he shouldn’t have to apologize for his actions.

    Link to Globe and Mail article:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/apology-sought-after-u-of-t-students-cause-uproar-with-blackface-for-halloween/article1358842/

  16. “Why does white culture insist on mocking Black culture?”

    So what you’re saying here is that black people don’t make fun of white people for; driving uncool, dancing terribly, listening to bad music, being inbred country music/nascar loving rednecks, or for being crappy at sports? I see.

    The fact of the matter is, there are almost no human beings alive nowadays from the time when “blackface” would have been relevant in entertainment in North America. Furthermore, how do you know where those white students are from? They could have all been from Croatia or Bosnia and arrived here in the last twenty years. That would make neither them, nor their ancestors in any way responsible for the plight of Blacks in North America.

  17. “And why does that same culture refuse to pay attention to what’s going on and exercise common sense?”

    And why can’t black people look at this with some objectivity and common sense? Here are some guys, playing up a Disney movie from the 90′s and are intending to be humorous. They aren’t belittling anyone. They aren’t claiming racial superiority. They’re dressing up as athletes led to the olympics by a big, fat, white John Candy. Can a white guy wear a LeBron James jersey or better yet FUBU? Can a white guy buy a Lil Wayne album AND sing along to it in his car?

    As far as your comment about “being Black as a costume” goes, they weren’t dressing up as black guys, they were dressing up as Jamaican bobsledders who happen to be Black. Think about it…

  18. Can’t believe this is actually in the news and “offended” anyone. Maybe someone needs to get psychiatric help if you they are offended that easily. Woulnd’t it be great (a lovely beige world) if we all sat around gnawing our knuckles, afraid to go out at Halloween or anywhere else because we worried that we might offend the easily offended?
    There are plenty of serious issues out there, child and animal cruelty, senior abuse, political and business fraud costing us all a fortune and the list goes on. Halloween costumes worn by students is not one of them. Get a life.

  19. So I’m a white male… should I be offended because the African-american guy who was portraying the coach painted his face white?

    This was Halloween… hello?, so a guy who dresses like a girl that night must be accused of being a misogynist?

    I don’t really know who is more retarded: if the people who were offended by this, or the one that made the guys apologize for it. So much ignorance on this country!

    This issue was as stupid and irrelevant as the one that happened a couple of years ago in Brampton, when somebody complained about the Christmas tree on the City Hall, and somebody else, more stupid and more ignorant than the original complainer gave the order of taking the tree out of everybody else’s sight.

  20. “And why can’t black people look at etc),this with some objectivity and common sense?”

    How about you stop with your generalizations?
    I’m black and I thought this was just an honest attempt at some good-fashioned humour. Don’t group us, it really isn’t fair. Aside from that, white people do all of what you mentioned in your paragraph (sing along to Lil Wayne, etc), but that has little to do with dressing up in (perceived) blackface. It is faulty analogy to compare something with obviously racist connotations to enjoying music. On top of that, Lil Wayne isn’t “black culture”–he is an African-American musician and that is all.

    Is Nickelback a part of “white culture”?

    No. Nickelback are a part of Canadian culture–they are musicians and only musicians.

  21. I have to agree with Andre. I find it kind of ironic really that S-DUB considers their costumes to be “Black Guys”, it’s as though he/she is classifying those characters by the colour of their skin…

  22. This post is one of the most idiotic things I have read in a while. I will only comment because interesting points are being made, but this debate is just outdated.
    As far as I can see, racism is barely relevant anymore to the younger generations. Most kids in Canada are now growing up in increasingly multi-cultural environments which just forces them to throw out the entire notion of “the other” because they are forced to see past race. Also it is worth to mention that so many Canadians are a mixture of different racial/ethic groups and this blurs the definition of “race”. The generations that are exposed to other ethnic groups only broadens their worldview and sensitizes them to other cultures instead of building up walls. This is not 1960 where there was a small minority, within the next few generations the “minority” will be the “majority”. People have a much wider view of the world then the media likes to acknowledge. We need to stop mentioning “race” in order to make it what it is: irrelevant.

    The only issue I see relevant today is that all the faces I see walking on the street are underrepresented on television where all white casts are central in movies and shows. Bickering over Halloween costumes is irrelevant.

  23. I am saddened that this issue has caused this much outrage.
    As a black student I understand that there are instances when white students just “don’t understand” the hurt that thay may cause. This seems like a prime example when this happened.
    It seems that the issue is being lost…blackface is offensive becaue it has negative implications. That a black student was part of it, doesn’t mean that black’s can’t be part of offensive action.

  24. You people do not seem to get it. It is not about the costume (although some people might find that culturally offensive), because of the relation it has to the arguably comedic/racist movie cool runnings, but it is about the fact these kids went and painted there faces with brown foundation makeup to darken their skin. The history behind “black face” is 100% offensive, and it is rational that any black person finds it offensive.

    For you guys to sit here and comment and say that its a joke, and its just a costume, and that “we as white people experience discrimination 24/7″ is ignorance in itself.

    There is no history behind “painting your face white”, nor with “being white and listening to hiphop”.. and even if there is its not brutally offensive like the history of painting your face black.

    Maybe the method of enlightening you guys with this subject is a bit condescending, but you must see past the costume, and the fact there faces were painted black and they were PRAISED for it.

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  27. response to jess
    “The only issue I see relevant today is that all the faces I see walking on the street are underrepresented on television where all white casts are central in movies and shows.”- are you hiding under a rock? This is the only issue of race you see in society? What about the treatment of racial minorities by the “justice” system, what about the fact that racial claims (like the one being discussed here) are trivialized, why are governemnts unrepresentative of the population, why when Blacks are represented in media is is done in a stereotypical way (criminals, athletes, etc.)? Why? Because race is still an issue in our society. The ignorant people who posted above are bound to have children who they pass on their ignorant elitist attitudes to- the cycle continues.

    You are what is wrong with society. Most of the comments posted above are ignorant and exemplify an attitude of white privelege that ignores racism, because it is not something that you have to or want to deal with. “As far as you can see”- seems you cannot see at all.

    A debate about race is NOT outdated. Race is and will always be relevant to our society. Just because Canada is become more multicultural does not mean that racism is eliminated. The very fact that you stated that shows how truly ignorant you are. I mean look at some of the comments posted above. These people are ignorant and exhibit racism.

    Lets just take the advice of those who have posted and ignore racial issues. Lets ignore the fact that aboriginals and other minorities are treated horribly in our society, lets ignore the fact the curriculums being taught in our schools are based on white history and ignore all others,etc.

    For many of those who posted above, educate yourselves before you speak.

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  29. The bobsled team is to be applauded for their clever and highly amusing skit. Bravo!

  30. I have to agree with Mike and Andre. The whole race issue needs to be put to bed. We are all people just trying to make it in the world. Both sides make fun of the other. The US has a black president. Things have changed. Look at all of the interracial relationships these days. One day we are all going to be the same color. It is sad when anyone of any race get there feelings hurt. Sometimes I think everyone needs to stop and think for a minute and always remember if you can’t laugh at yourself who can you laugh at.

  31. Black face BY WHITES is always racist, there are no exceptions, BF has racist origins, it was created to DEMONIZE black people, just as redface and yellowface was invented BY WHITES to demonize those respective groups as well.

    What about ‘White Chicks’ the movie? Whiteface does NOT equal blackface, their origins are much different.

  32. Seriously you guys need to lighten up the world has gone all PC it’s ridiculous, it’s obvious these guys didn’t mean any offence.

    Question to all the moaners above is who offends who if someone were to go as Michael Jackson….

  33. Okay sooo a few dressed like hobbits and walked around! Shorter people UNITE!!! *rofl*

    The real test to these sensibilities would be what would happen if 4 men of color had worn the same theme.

    I mean seriously people. Get a grip!

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