Racial attitudes, historian Barbara Fields wrote in a classic essay, are "promiscuous critters that do not mind cohabiting with their opposites." If I were FIFA, I'd consider hang that from a banner in the World Cup stadiums to provide a little inspiration for self-reflection among certain fans. It might ultimately do more good than the more satisfyingly pedantic "Say No to Racism," which is of course an unimpeachable as a command but has the disadvantage that it requires the people at whom it is directed to understand what racism is.
But to interpret, understand, and confront racism in sport is to enter into a labyrinth of contradictions. And it forces us study the denials and tactics of deflection and self-exoneration on the part of fans and institutions alike.
This World Cup has been (to my knowledge) devoid of the types of anti-black racist fan behavior present in the 2012 European Cup and endemic to in European professional football—the banana-throwing and the monkey noises protested and ridiculed in this Spring's #somostodismacacos social media campaign among footballers. And some European teams—notably France, Belgium, and Switzerland—have been celebrated for their diversity and the way they model cooperation and even love between citizens of varied backgrounds and bearing different histories.
There was, in one of the more remarkable moments in the fabulous match between Ghana and Germany, a pro-Nazi fan who invaded the pitch, his body scrawled with messages to the world, and who was politely and firmly escorted off not by any match officials but by the Ghanaian player Sulley Muntari. But during this match as well as others during the last few days, another phenomenon has flashed across our screens: fans in blackface. There were these guys, in homemade “Ghana” t-shirts, smiling for the camera. And these smiling fellows, Germany fans interviewed by an equally amused Brazilian television host. And this guy, at the Ghana-Germany game as well, who went for a fairly straightforward blackface-wig look.
There were other examples of fans of other European teams doing something similar, including two French fans who seem to have appeared in blackface and cross-dressed in a way that evoked the traditional dress of Afro-Brazilian women practicing the religion of candomblé. That costume in itself deserves some unpacking, and incited some debate on Twitter about precisely what these two were doing.
The appearance of blackface has prompted calls for FIFA to do something to prevent access to the stadium for fans dressed in this way, and the organization has said they will “investigate,” which may mean something—or nothing at all.
This all, however, prompts a question: What are these people doing? And what are they thinking?
The use of blackface has a long history in European theatrical and vernacular culture. It was part of the Comeddia Dell Arte in Italy, and used at times in peasant rebellions or charivari meant at shaming people in public. But it was during the eighteenth and nineteenth century that the modern tradition of blackface really got going: a form of theatre in which whites went on stage pretending to be black. The most important form of popular culture in North America in the nineteenth century was Blackface Minstrelsy, in which white musicians performed music and dance they claimed to have learned from enslaved African-Americans. Blackface is not simple at all—one scholar, Eric Lott, described as an odd combination of “love and theft” in which imitation and distancing, recognition and racist refusal, coexist. Blackface is part of some carnival traditions in the Caribbean and Brazil, as well as part of street celebrations in Cape Town practiced to this day. And the legacies of minstrelsy still saturate North American popular culture.
Blackface has a bit of a history in football too. In one famous case in 2000, players from the Italian team Treviso wore blackface on the pitch in solidarity with the Nigerian player Akeem Omolade who had been racially abused by his team’s own fans (an incident recalled in this guide to fighting racism co-produced by UEFA). The next year anti-racism newspaper advertisements in Italy feature Lilian Thuram alongside Italian footballers wearing blackface. Dutch fans of Ruud Gullit, meanwhile, used to wear Afro wigs to the stadium in what they considered a gesture of support for the player.
The irruption of blackface in particular at the Germany-Ghana game triggered a rapid response on social media and a debate about what was happening, and what should be done. None of the fans in blackface, to my knowledge, offered or were asked to provide an explanation of what they were doing. Having had my fair share of arguments with Europeans who, right after saying something racist, explain at length that the only reason I think what they said is racist is because I’m an uptight American, I have a bit of a sense of how such a conversation might well go. Fans of blackface (including those who occasionally turn up on U.S. campuses, for instance) tend to evoke their right to parody, the carnivalesque, and so forth. In the midst of a stadium full of painted and outrageously dressed fans, perhaps they might have responded: “What’s the big deal with a little blackface?”
On Twitter, the user @NutmegRadio explored the thought process that might lead to someone dressing up in Blackface to support Ghana. There is of course, another traditional way that one could do this: by wearing a Ghana jersey and maybe carrying a Ghana flag, for instance. I think the two photographed with the hand-made Ghana shirts were probably not supporting the African team but making fun of it. And I think that was probably the case for the several of the others pictured as well. Even if they painted their faces black in an attempt to support Ghana in some way, it would take a remarkable level of ignorance or isolation from the world not to understand that such a costume is, in fact, quite different in its meaning and the responses it generates than any number of other styles of dress and costuming one might bring into a stadium.
Will some fans of Germany, France or Belgium show up at future games wearing blackface again? If so, will anyone stop them? And if they are asked exactly what they mean, what will they say? Why, exactly, do they feel comfortable, here and now, in this kind of costume? What do they know, and what do they not know, about the history of racist caricature in which they are now firmly placing themselves? And what is FIFA going to do about it?
Laurent Dubois is Director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University, author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, and editor of the Soccer Politics blog.