Skin colour and race tend to be explosive subjects for American politicians. It recently caused widespread consternation across the U.S. when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam admitted he once darkened his face to resemble Michael Jackson for at dance contest in 1984. Critics accuse Northam of displaying racist undertones by blackfacing, which is seen as pointing to the United States’ past as a slave nation and to minstrel shows where whites dressed up as black people.
But in Denmark it should be seen as advocating diversity and tolerance when white politicians wear blackface, at least according to Mogens Jensen, a Social Democrat and former minister for trade and development. In 2012, at the political festival Folkemødet, which takes place each year on the island of Bornholm, he darkened his face (as seen in the image above) to promote awareness of diversity as part of a happening entitled “With other Eyes”, which was organised on behalf of the Danish Institute for Human Rights and whose participants also included Turkish-born Danish politician Özlem Cekic.
In Mogens Jensen’s eyes, the Folkemødet event should not be a cause for consternation or anger.
“There is no comparison what so ever between the episodes in the U.S. and what Özlem Cekic and I took part in on Bornholm. We were asked to participate in a workshop that was about changing your skin colour or gender identity to see how it affects the world around you and the reactions you may get. It was a sort of “try this on your own body to feel what it’s like to look different”.
Translated by Bibi Christensen
Without importing elements of American political correctness, is it not fair to ask if it is not your responsibility as an individual to understand that blackfacing may be offensive to other people?
“I really don’t understand how it could be seen in any way as stepping on other people, or offending other people, when the whole intent of that workshop for the Institute of Human Rights was to put yourself in the place of other people. It’s exactly the opposite intent. So, no, I don’t see any problem with that workshop, because it was really about the reactions you get to having a different skin colour, ethnicity or gender. It was about learning to respect that we are different and that human rights apply to us all.”
»It was an ice-breaker, an occasion to have a discussion about discrimination. In my opinion, it was very beneficial.«
”It wasn’t me just darkening my face. There were professional make-up artists to make us look as authentic as possible. Özlem Cekic chose to become a white blonde, just as I chose to be black. I could have chosen something different.”
So why did you choose to be black?
“I don’t remember why I chose that over any other identity. In any case, I don’t think it matters, because in principle it’s not about me being black, brown or Asian. It’s about being in a different situation.”
What did you learn from having your face darkened?
“Just seeing yourself differently in the mirror, you already start to think. Obviously, for a lot of people it’s about it being fun to see, and about them not recognising me, but, in each case, it led to a discussion about the purpose. Which was to get an understanding of how people might react if you look different. It was an ice-breaker, an occasion to have a discussion about discrimination. In my opinion, it was very beneficial.”
Some American anti-racists believe that white people should refrain from blackfacing under any circumstances. Do you recognise that blackfacing may be seen as offensive?
“It may be that people see pictures of me with a darkened face without knowing the context and thinking, “What? Is he ridiculing black people?”, because I have a big smile and look like God-knows-what. I don’t think I make a good black person. But when you understand the context – that it’s an attempt to feel first-hand what it’s like to look different – then I think it justifies doing it.”
Would you do a similar stunt again, or would anything at this time make you act differently?
“With this concept that the Institute for Human Rights had, I would appear again at any time, for the purpose it had back then. Absolutely.”