Dissenting Opinion: Raffi Torres Isn’t a Racist

I’m a little torn on the controversy around hockey player Raffi Torres dressed up as Jay-Z, which required painting his skin black in order to be less Mexican, more African-American. But only a little torn.

Judging by the angry internetz, apparently “blackface” is a special case in the world of race-mocking and racially-sensitive taboo costumes.

Well, okay. Except… this isn’t “blackface.” This is black makeup.

First, let’s point out the obvious here — I’m fish-belly white. I’m descended from a long line of fish-belly white people. I wear SPF 60 in the summer, and have green eyes and light-brown hair. I’m clearly a honky.

So, obviously I don’t have a fucking clue what it’s like to be discriminated against on the basis of my skin colour. I also don’t have the foggiest what being descended from slavery would be like. And, being Canadian, I don’t have the remotest idea what it’s like to live in a racially-charged country that has come from the Jim Crow laws of the South all the way to having a half-black president in office, all in 50 years.

I accept that I’m absolutely ignorant about what being black in America today is like. Guilty as charged.

That said…

What Raffi Torres did isn’t “Blackface.” He’s lampooning an actual person, not a whole race or culture. He’s goofing off on the one day of the year that everyone gets to dress up in masquerade.

I understand that, historically, “blackface” was a way of triggering long-felt hurt and mockery amongst socially-aware blacks who know their history. I get that there’s more to it than just being an ignorant theatrical past with stupid white people. I know this.

I think, in that way, that yes, it is somewhat racially insensitive, maybe a little boneheaded on Torres’ part given his public stature, but it’s not racist.

The outcry is over the top on this one. Is there cause for discussion? Yeah, absolutely. A lot of people probably need to know more about the history of blackface. Raffi Torres’ life has been spent without blackface being on television since its last appearance was in 1981, the year he was born.

If people want to talk about why his “costume” is inappropriate, then great. But the “he’s a racist” talk needs to fucking stop. First, he’s Mexican and probably gets it. Second, his agent is black. Third, he’s a Jay-Z fan and wanted to have a night pretending to be a great rapper — who’s black, and being a pasty-faced Mexican wouldn’t have pulled that off too effectively.

Some dude dressing up with painted skin that is done as MAKEUP, not as a mockery that has unrealistically huge lips, or excessive stylizing, isn’t racist — he’s just ignorant of the fact that some would deem it racially insensitive.

Take a look at the ACTUAL blackface shot here, the infamous The Jazz Singer take on it, versus Torres’ attempt at being Jay-Z. Slightly different style, no?

Was the movie Tropic Thunder racist because Robert Downey Jr. wore black makeup? No. It was funnier because of it, because his ignorance was amplified for comedic gain. It seems funny to us that someone could be alive today and be that ignorant, and that’s the joke.

Is Raffi Torres racially insensitive? A lot of people think so today. Would I have dressed up with blackface? No, but that’s mostly because it’s way too much work. Do I think Raffi Torres is racially insensitive? No. Would I advise someone against dressing up as a black person? Unlikely, but depends on the context. This context? I have no problems with it. Rappers by their very nature are pretty easy to lampoon, because they’re so stylized. But white southern folk are easy to lampoon too. That’s how it goes.

There are things we need to societally accept and just get over, and this is one of them. There’s a big difference between wearing black makeup that’s authentically done and wearing “blackface.” There’s a big difference between dressing up as an Asian and drawing “slant-eyes” on your face. One is authentic-looking in an attempt at mimicking, the other is blatant mockery and derision.

Raffi Torres wasn’t mocking, deriding, or insulting black culture. He was pretending to be someone that’s not the same race as him. It’s not an offense.

In some ways, it’s an example of how far we’ve come — that the new generation doesn’t see the offense, blacks have become millionaires and the movers-and-shakers of culture today. They’re as fair game as anyone, and that’s a good thing. That actually is progress.

We need to get to a place where we understand that there’s a difference between offensive behaviour and just having fun. There are sometimes shades of grey, but being unable to laugh at ourselves does us no favours.

This wasn’t racism. It’s not offensive. It’s impressionism, mimicry, and even wanna-be behaviour, but it’s not racist.

If everyone who’s bent out of shape about this could turn their righteous indignation towards the real offenses — like how a race that comprises 14% of the American population still manages to account for 60%+ of those in jail today in the USA.

Now that’s offensive.