Florence + the Machine’s (F+TM) new video, No Light, No Light (below), has stirred up quite a lot of controversy even though it was only released a couple of days a go. In the video’s narrative, Florence Welch is distressed as she is pursued by a man painted in black, who is half-naked (wearing only ripped up shorts) and who looks to be practising ‘voodoo magic’. Her assailant is wearing an ‘African-looking’ mask and sticking pins in dolls. He causes Welch to squirm in agony and to run for shelter. Welch is ‘saved’ by a choir of White children (whose faces are not painted) in what looks like a Christian church. In this post, I consider the video’s narrative with respect to the history of ‘blackface’, racist depictions of ‘otherness’ and African religions, and the notion of ‘unintentional racism’ in popular culture. I am specifically interested in the public discussions about the video, which are currently centred on what constitutes racism.
Blackface is a form of exaggerated stage makeup that has been historically used to ridicule and subjugate African people and their descendants in comedy acts, plays and movies. William Mahar has traced the history of blackface to an appropriation of Italian and English play conventions, which were adopted in American minstrels (racist musical acts and skits) in the early 1800s. The practice of blackface also has a lurid and ongoing history in Australia, targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The first recorded case was in 1834—the same timeframe as minstrels became popular in the USA—and it remained commonplace until the 1950s. The 1955 film Jedda was the first time an Aboriginal actor (Bob Wilson) played an Aboriginal character, but the film’s lead was a White man in blackface. It would not be the last case where a White person used blackface to portray an Indigenous character in Australia.
Dozens of high-profile cases in the present-day show non-Indigenous Australians fail to redress our racist history. Often defended as “part of a costume” or as “harmless fun or satire” it is disrespectful of, and harmful to, Indigenous cultures. Speaking on the infamous Hey Hey It’s Saturday incident from 2009, where a musical act portrayed the Jackson 5 in blackface and Michael Jackson as a White man, artist and communications expert, Jirra Lulla Harvey, a woman of Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri descent, explains the historical trauma:
In Australian minstrelsy Aboriginal characters were redefined according to this global typecasting. No longer were they Yorta Yorta or Wathaurung, they became simple characterisations of the Black Other. When relegated to this position, Aboriginal characters (and the people they supposedly depict) become laden with cultural stereotypes from across the ages and the seas. American and British minstrelsy was based on centuries of racism towards people of African and Caribbean descent; when Blackface hit our shores there was a substantial bank of racial stereotypes that aided in the portrayal/betrayal of a newly colonised people… There is a history of Blackface in Australia. It is a hurtful and degrading history that denied our right to self representation and helped to create the racial stereotypes that plague our nation today.
I am Australian, I like a good laugh. I am Aboriginal and carry the scars of this history. To revive Blackface is not funny.
Florence + The Machine
Jezebel has put out a useful deconstruction of the Florence video’s racist imagery and its negative stereotypical depiction of Voodoo religions. Dodai Stewart, editor of Jezebel, writes:
Haitian Vodou is a religion that is very misunderstood. Slaves were brought to the Caribbean against their will and forbidden to practice their traditional African religions as well as forced to convert to the religion of their masters. The Bond movie/Eurocentric/Americanized viewpoint presents Vodou as an evil, primitive version of witchcraft. But it’s a religion like any other, with a moral code, gods and goddesses. Many ceremonies deal with protection from evil spirits… While many cultures consider black to be a positive colour — the colour of rich, fertile soil, the colour of strong, dense woods like ebony — the Eurocentric view is that black is evil… This video is in keeping with the outdated, narrow view that nothing black can be good. This is at the very root of racism! The phrase “deepest, darkest Africa” refers not to a place in which there’s no sunshine but a place where the people are dark. And therefore scary. And therefore bad. And this video aligns with that theory.
Interestingly, the Jezebel forum following the critique of the F+TM video begins with a long discussion by several readers who argue that Welch may not have a firm understanding about the racist history of ‘blackface’ because she is from the UK. This excuse doesn’t fly because as I’ll show, racism does not require intent. Racism includes acting out unconscious bias and reproducing historical relations.
Jezebel’s British and American readers erroneously argue that racism in the USA is ‘worse’ than in the UK. In fact, my British-Australian sociology colleague Millsom Henry-Waring has connected the history of the golliwog doll to blackface in America and racism in the UK and Australia. The history of racism in the UK can also be addressed by the work of Paul Gilroy, Millsom Henry-Waring’s ethnographic research in the UK, and countless other researchers who have studied the post-colonial effects of racism on everyday relations in the UK. The idea that Welch would not have connected the history of blackface and racist depictions of minorities simply because she is British does not excuse the critical context in which this video is being currently read.
Consequences of “Unintentional Racism”
The Florence + the Machine video has offended many people, squarely in two camps: people who think the video is racist and fans who feel incredulous about the idea that Welch could be charged with the label of racist. As I currently write, there are over 6,600 heated comments on the F+TM YouTube page as to whether or not the video’s images are racist. The debate revolves around people who ‘see’ or ‘do not see’ racism, and whether ‘not seeing’ racism makes the commentators racist. Other fans are simply annoyed that people would dare suggest that ‘THE FLAWLESS FLORENCE IS RACIST OR INTENDS TO BE’ (as one person put it in grrr – angry ALL CAPS).
Around 600 people to date have signed a petition to ban the video, and they demand that Welch make a public apology. The petition cites five reasons why the video is offensive. This includes its depiction of African religions as ‘evil’, as well as the use of blackface, and its perpetuation of the ‘stereotype that black men are savages and will rape and hunt White women and/or White people’. The current forum thread on F+TM website is filled with critical comments as well as supportive comments from fans who have rushed to defend Welch’s artistic vision. Some typical comments from offended fans are:
I would love a response from Florence + the machine to this. I want the children I teach to not see being black as “naughty/ bad/ evil” and I wish that people with fame and opportunities to portray minorities in the media would think about the impact they make. I have no doubt you did not intend for that video to be racist. But what else could you call it?”
Florence- I have been loving the songs I’ve heard on your new album. Today I watched your video for “no light” and am very disturbed. It has made me question whether or not I can listen to your music in good conscience. Maybe in the UK it is not offensive to portray the only minority in your video as an evil voodoo stereotype – but in the US it’s a pretty appalling thing to see. I teach children, many whom are minorities, and I would never, ever, feel comfortable showing them ur [sic] video.
I am a major Florence fan, as my Tumblr site unabashedly shows. This latest video is disappointing not simply because it fits into a long, racist history where popular culture reproduces negative portrayals of people of colour. It is also disheartening because it yet another example of what bell hooks calls ‘eating the other’, hot on the heels of so many other similar examples from this past year alone.
Eating the Other
The idea of ‘eating the Other’ refers to pop culture’s fascination with portraying ‘primitive cultures’ as exotic, uncivilised, violent and threatening to ‘Western’ people (women especially). The notion of eating the Other also tackles how popular culture repackages and exploits indigenous religions in reductionist and insensitive ways.
The most recent examples of seemingly innocuous reproductions of otherness include Australian airline giant Qantas, who apologised in mid-August after it rewarded two sports fans who wore blackface for a sports competition in ‘honour’ of Fijian-born rugby player Radike Samo. Qantas argued it did not recognise the racist connotations of blackface. The men at the centre of the scandal said that they were merely paying tribute to Samo. Samo apparently saw their stunt in a similar way and he was quoted as saying that the controversy was ‘silly’.
In early September, model Crystal Renn had her eyes taped to appear ‘Asian’ for a Vogue Japan magazine shoot. In a similar ‘I didn’t realise it might be racist’ defence, Renn told Jezebel editor (and her close friend) that she ‘wasn’t trying to look Asian’ and that she wasn’t thinking about race during the shoot, but that she was simply trying to ‘transform’ herself.
Whiteness and White Privilege
Sociologists argue that one of the advantages of being ‘White’ is the invisibility and personally unobservable consequences of race relations. This is also known as White privilege. Whiteness, or the dominance of White culture, makes White practices seem as if they are natural and normal, and therefore benign. Sociologists such as Ruth Frankenberg and Susanne Schech and Jane Haggis show that the reality is very different. In everyday life, as well as in popular culture, White practices and ideas go unexamined, especially how they might be masking power relations and unconscious bias, and how this subsequently feeds active discrimination.
Race and racism is sometimes conceived as not being a problem for White people because mainstream culture is supported by deeply ingrained racist ideologies. By definition, ideologies are established by tacit processes of consent, primarily via cultural institutions such as the media, and they are maintained through unconscious cultural habits and everyday interactions. Not seeing racism and the damage it cases minority groups is one of the major social consequences of ideological racism.
As Minh-ha T. Pham wrote on Racialicious, with respect to the Renn incident, racist acts do not require the intention of the actor to set out to offend or oppress minority groups. Using bell’s argument about eating the other, Pham asks ‘do racist acts require intentionality?’ She argues that ‘The obvious answer is no’:
Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies (the U.S. context is not exempt but neither is it exceptional) that everyday racism, the kind of racism that is experienced in civic life (through social relationships, media, interpersonal workplace dynamics, etc.) is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it’s an act of conscience.
The fact that people in a position of privilege fail to connect their appropriations of otherness and their reproductions of cultural stereotypes with racism does not negate the effects and consequences of their actions. Welch is a talented artist and art draws inspiration from various cultures and sources, but such pastiche should not include upholding negative stereotypes of stigmatised and misunderstood cultures.
Welch has yet to address the controversy of her video, which greatly disappoints me as a fan of her music. What annoys me more, however, is that the public debate about racist stereotypes in popular culture has not progressed any further.
What do other sociologists think about the video? Is it putting forward an unexamined example of blackface? Is its narrative reproducing negative images of otherness? Are some of us reading too much into this and should Welch be given some artistic licence? Watch the video and share your thoughts with me if you please!
This post was edited to move the definition of Blackface to the top of the article, with more references added on blackface in Australia.
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