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What is blackface? Footballers who have caused controversy & why it's offensive

10:17 PM GMT+4 08/01/2019
Andres Iniesta
Goal takes a look at the history of blackface and why it is so insulting after a series of football players have been involved in the controversy

Spain legend Andres Iniesta is the latest footballer to have been involved in a blackface controversy after he posted an ill-advised photo of him and his family celebrating Three Kings Day – with two people in the photograph wearing black paint on their faces.

He is not the first footballer to have been in embroiled in such a fracas, and likely will not be the last – despite the practice of blackface considered to be demeaning, offensive and insulting to black people and African-Americans, especially.

But what exactly is blackface, why is it offensive, and what other footballers have caused controversy? Goal takes a look.

What is blackface?

Blackface is, essentially, the practice where non-black people (usually Caucasians) darken their skin using make-up to purposefully impersonate black people, usually with a view to mock and ridicule (however inadvertently).

Most instances of blackface occur during Halloween events and dress-up gatherings, most often during university campuses or other situations which require costume or fancy dress.

Blackface costumes are most recognisable through the aforementioned darkening make-up, though can also use other accessories and items such as fake wigs, dreadlocks, and stuffed bosoms to further make fun of black people. Blackface is usually worn with the intention of distastefully celebrating hate towards black people.

The concept of blackface predates the transatlantic slave trade - in Elizabethan times it was common for the actor playing Shakespeare's Othello to darken their skin for the role - and has a poisonous history within the United States, where its use began through the prominence of minstrel shows, which were a form of racist white entertainment in America that was became popular in the 1820s.

The minstrels in these sorts of shows had white performers using black face to portray black characters, covering their skin with black paint – usually with burnt cork or shoe polish – and leaving large areas of their mouths bare and then painted red or white to portray the prominence of their lips.

These performers would openly mock black people in a distasteful caricature of their culture and way they act, moving around in an ungraceful way and adopting exaggerated, foreign accents that was peppered with poor and broken English to further parody black people.

Why is blackface offensive?

The act of putting on blackface is purely a manifestation of the history of stereotyping, dehumanising and oppressing black people by openly mocking them.

Blackface was and is carefully curated practice to portray black people as those with low intelligence and strange, with the sole intention to make a mockery out of them for laughs and to entertain for profit.

Eventually, blackface broke off from the minstrel tradition and became used in its own right, with many non-black people today still wrongly appropriating black culture by painting their faces black.

African-Americans consider blackfacing to obviously be a racially insensitive representation of their culture and community, stemmed from the long history of its prominence in minstrel shows.

It is considered culturally offensive and insensitive, seemingly minimising the centuries of oppression faced by black people across history by a single act of administering black paint.

Which footballers have used blackface?

Ex-Barcelona midfielder Iniesta was recently criticised after posting a photograph of himself with two people who wore blackface as part of Epiphany celebrations in his native Spain.

Iniesta posed with his family and a group dressed in costumes related to Three Kings Day, a Christian festive tradition celebrated on January 6 in Spain that commemorates the visit of magi Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar to newborn baby Jesus.

In the photo, two of the photo are painted with blackface, and typically the role of Balthasar is frequently portrayed by a white man wearing blackface in Spanish festivities.

As the Kings are usually white councillors, Balthasar is most often played by a white man wearing black makeup.

However, the mayor of Madrid Manuela Carmena ended that controversial tradition in 2016 by employing a black man to portray the role.

Iniesta later apologised for the incident through his representatives after significant backlash on social media platforms to the photo, stating: "We want to settle the controversy that has arisen around this picture in which the three people dressed and characterised with make-up appear as the Kings of the East, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, as happens in most cavalcades and events that were celebrated in Spain that day.

"At no time did Andres Iniesta want to bother anyone with that photograph, which is the image of the illusion in Spain and apologises to those people who may have been offended."

Atletico Madrid and France star Antoine Griezmann was involved in his own blackface controversy in 2017, after posting a photo of himself dressed as a Harlem Globetrotter and sporting black paint on his face.

Racism and bigotry still remains a sensitive topic in Spanish football circles, with players at times often subjected to abusive chants from fans.

The forward was wearing a full basketball uniform and an afro wig in a picture captioned "'80s party", along with the laughing emoji.

The post also garnered heavy backlash on social media, with users quickly branding the photo as "racist" and urging him to delete the tweet.

Following a hurricane of replies condemning the post on the player's account, Griezmann added that he was merely calling the costume a tribute to the legendary basketball team.

"Calm down friends, I am a fan of the Harlem Globetrotters and of that beautiful era, it is a tribute," he said on Twitter. 

The apology did little to help the situation, however, and the striker eventually conceded an apology, writing: "I admit it's awkward from me.  If I did hurt anybody, then I apologise."

Ex-England striker Stan Collymore was among those to criticise Griezmann's post, writing on Twitter: "A simple Google search will tell you the context of black face and where it came from. Instead of saying 'I don't think that's racist', put yourself in others shoes, read a little and then say 'ok, I hear ya.'"

Another recent incident – this time in Australian rugby – related to blackface occurred in September 2018 when three players wore black face paint for end-of-season celebrations when they dressed up as tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams and Kenyan-born AFL player Aliir Aliir.

The trio, who play for a local Australian Rules Football (AFL) side in Tasmania, drew criticism from social media users when they shared the offensive post.