Well it looks like Paul Bissonette’s usually flawless twitter usage has finally got one of his teammates into trouble. That teammate: former Canucks forward Raffi Torres, who I personally loved as a Canuck. Raffi, however, made the idiotic mistake of doing blackface on Halloween, when he dressed as Jay-Z and his wife dressed as a pregnant Beyonce Knowles. Seriously people, don’t do it, don’t wear black-face on Halloween, or ever. It’s stupid, it’s ignorant, and it just doesn’t fly.
Now I think it’s probable that Raffi Torres, a ginger whose father hails from Mexico City, doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. But blackface has a particular, bigoted history that makes its usage beyond the pale in polite society. Even if Raffi’s halloween costume bears little resemblance to the blackface of minstrel shows, the subject is too loaded to be a source of humour. It’s off limits. Of course, the realm of professional hockey players rarely qualifies as "polite society," and this is not the first blackface/halloween costume/NHL player controversy in the last few years.
I’m talking of course about Patrick Kane and Adam Burish back in 2009. Patrick Kane of course dressed up as Scottie Pippen, while Adam Burish dressed up as Rodman:
In the case of Patrick Kane and Adam Burish, their costume was outed by Ernest Wilkins a RedEye intern who tweeted out the photos and later wrote, "It’s interesting being a Black (feel free to sub in Latino/Woman/actual Penguin at your will) hockey fan sometimes. We don’t see a lot of players that look like us, and we want more people out there to look up to on the ice. Stuff like this doesn’t help." Amen.
Wilkins was, predictably, criticized for tweeting out the photo because he "focussed on Kane" rather than on Kane and Burish together because, "of course… only one of those guys is a star." Solid homer reporting from Chicago Now’s Mike Kiley on that one.
Biznasty has since taken to twitter to defend his teammate saying "Raffi is a huge Jay-Z fan" as if that has anything to do with the issue. He also RT’d a photo of Dwayne Wade in white face as a way of rhetorically asking "what’s the difference between the two?" Let’s just say that Bissonette is digging himself in deeper on this one. It doesn’t matter if Raffi is a Jay-Z fan, it’s the invoked tradition of blackface that is offensive here. And that’s also why the Dwayne Wade comparison falls flat: it’s the sordid history Raffi’s costume references that is at issue here.
Here’s the point to me: blackface halloween costumes are racist at worst, and woefully ignorant at best. They’re in indefensible poor taste and any smart person knows it. There’s context here though, hockey players and the world they inhabit isn’t always enlightened. Just based on Bissonette’s usually excellent twitter account you can infer some borderline medieval attitudes towards topics like in-game toughness, and women. Up until tonight I wouldn’t have included "ethnic minorities"(*) on that list, but the fact that one of the most "with-it" NHLers wasn’t wise to the shit-storm that would ensue when he tweeted out a photo of a teammate in blackface is baffling, revealing and sad.
(*) I’m informed that the UN considers the term "ethnic minorities" to be racist.