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Blackface at Epiphany parade sparks outrage

In some Catalan towns a white actor in black facepaint interprets Balthasar, one of the Three Kings bringing presents to children

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10 January 2018 02:43 PM

by

Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

Anti-racism activists accuse Epiphany day parade organisers of using the controversial practice of blackfacedark face paint worn by white actors to interpret people of colorfor the character of Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men who bring presents to children at the end of every Christmas season.

Known as the Three Kings in Catalonia, Barcelona and other towns already started casting black citizens years ago, but in other parts of the country the practice remains common.

“It’s horrible. It makes you feel angry, sad, outraged… I personally feel humiliated,” said Daouda Dieye, a Senegalese who’s lived in Catalonia for 12 years. “You can’t understand it unless you are black.”

Dieye is a member of a trade union of unlicensed street sellers in Barcelona. This year, the group organized an alternative parade involving black people with their faces painted white. “We wanted to show how ridiculous it is,” said Dieye.

One of the biggest towns were Balthazar was, in fact, a white actor this year was Girona. Eva Palau, a Girona city councilor, said they were offended by the accusations: “We are not racist,” she said. Yet, she acknowledged that some people might be hurt “due to feeling excluded.”

The Three Wise Men in Girona (by Gerard Vilà)

“Racism is not an opinion—it’s a violation of rights and a form of violence,” said Mònica López, a spokesperson for SOS Racisme, an anti-racism NGO promoting the rights of immigrants. “The fact that a person is hurt by our actions should force us to reconsider what we are doing, even if we have good intentions and it’s a tradition.”

A century ago, blackface was a very popular form of theatrical make up in United States ‘minstrel shows,’ commonly portraying black people—often slaves—in a comedic way, frequently based on racist stereotypes, and contributing the spreading and acceptance of prejudice.

  • “It’s horrible. It makes you feel angry, sad, outraged… I personally feel humiliated. You can't understand it unless you're black"

    Daouda Dieye · Member of a trade union of unlicensed street sellers in Barcelona

Although it is now regarded as offensive and racist, other countries continue to keep similar traditions. In the Netherlands, the helper for Santa, called ‘Black Pete,’ is traditionally played by a white actor with their face painted black, wearing a curly-haired wig, and exaggerated red or white lips.

While some Catalan towns, including the city of Barcelona, have progressively abandoned the traditional practice, others argue that they are unable to find black people willing to join the parade. However, López dismissed this excuse as not valid: “Our society is more diverse every day, there are black people everywhere.”

American entertainer Bert Williams portraying a black person (Library of Congress)

Unlike other countries, the Catalan census does not include data on the racial self-identification of its citizens. Consequently, there is no official number on how many black people live in the country. According to the Statistical Institute of Catalonia, 289,267 Africans are in the country on a residence permit, and 8,924 have Spanish nationality. Roughly, they represent 4% of the Catalan population. This figure, though, includes neither Catalans of African descent, nor Africans without a residence permit.

In recent years, the Girona City Council did tell parade organizers that the Three Kings should be more representative of the town’s population and current demographics. While in the past the demand has gone unheeded, next year, they will again ask them to include black participants. And this time, Palau said, “we will be much less flexible.”

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  • A white man with his face painted black to portray Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men, in Girona (by Gerard Vilà)

  • A white man with his face painted black to portray Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men, in Girona (by Gerard Vilà)