One More Post About Raffi’s Jay-Z Costume

Having digested the issue for twenty-four hours, read through the comments (many of them exasperating, many of them thoughtful) on my original post, and read the excellent takes on the issue by better writers than I in Bruce Arthur and Harrison Mooney, I figured I’d try and sum up my thoughts about a days worth of dialogue. After this I’ll return to Canucks Army’s regularly scheduled programming of dry statistical analysis and prospect interviews and such.

While I never wrote that Raffi Torres was racist; I did point out that sporting blackface (which is what Raffi did, while blackface is a particular Vaudevillian theatrical tradition, a performer sporting makeup to imitate a black person is an acceptable definition) is always unacceptable in my view. Even on Halloween, and even as a tribute. I stand by that, and the argument that I’m racist for saying it or that, "But Dwayne Wade went as JT" are not good ones, and they’re really besides the point.

We all know Raffi’s Jay-Z portrayal wasn’t stereotypical beyond him darkening his skin, but it does conjure up the more offensive images associated with the blackface of a generation ago. Harrison Mooney makes the most important distinction right in the title of his take on Puck Daddy "Raffi Torres as Jay-Z isn’t racist, it’s still racially insensitive." Which is really the point here, hockey players are public figures, and in a world held together by increasingly sophisticated methods of communication, symbols matter. Let’s Pass it to Mooney:

The problem is that blackface is so loaded now, you can’t possibly go out in it without making a racial statement, without calling up the shame and mockery that African-Americans sought to overcome by taking blackface and the idea of blacks as second class citizens out of popular culture.

In my take I touched on the regressive attitudes one can glean about professional hockey players from Bissonette’s Twitter account. I mentioned in particular the enforcer’s supposed views and implied treatment of women, and "in-game toughness" as examples. Now I’ll be dead honest, Bissonette’s twitter account isn’t for everybody, but I think it’s pretty damn good most of the time. I want to have guys like Bissonette sharing his day-to-day experiences with fans, it’s good for the sport and it’s amusing. Taylor Hall is improving at Twitter too and I’ve very much enjoyed his recent trolling of Canucks fans. It’ll make it a lot more fun when the Canucks remind the Oilers who is still top-dog in the Northwest when they meet again later this month.

But increased transparency aside, hockey has some cultural issues that it rubs up against from time to time. Homophobia, player safety, misogyny (and not just in the locker room, but also in the stands with Ice Girls popping up in more and more stadiums) and, yes, race make up the laundry list. 

Hockey has come a long way in terms of race, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the 1960s and no progress has been made. It has, and that’s an excellent thing. But as Bruce Arthur writes:

Hockey is a closed society, in a lot of ways. Diversity exists — Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs, etc. — but racially, it remains the least diverse major sports league, unless you get into NASCAR, tennis, or golf. That’s demographics as much as anything, and it is slowly changing."

That it is slowly changing is progress, and a more inclusive sport is good for the league, and should be actively promoted by the organizations and the individuals (both fans and players). One of the most important things we do as citizens is to try and create a better and more inclusive society. Hockey will ultimately be a better sport thanks to guys like PK Subban, Jarome Iginla, even Raffi Torres’ (minus the headshots) and eventualy Seth Jones (the son of former NBA star Popeye Jones and a likely top-10 pick in the 2013 NHL draft). 

That’s why Raffi in "blackface" or with "darkened skin" in a Halloween costume (and seriously, quibbling about this definition obscures the issue and squirrels the debate) is an issue for me. At the very least it’s potentially hurtful and damaging to millions of fans. It appears from Arthur’s article that Torres didn’t understand the scope of the sensitivities at play when he sported his Jay-Z costume. At the very least, I hope that we can all agree that for a public figure, darkening your skin for a Halloween costume is at least unwise.

Here’s a good quote from Hipinion in a thread about Wyshynski’s take on the issue yesterday:

You are a legitimate hardcore asshole if you paint your skin black for halloween. You know how some people feel about it and decide you don’t care. get fucked, fuck you, there are a million things you can dress up as that don’t stir up known issues with people. don’t be a dick, be a vampire or something

I think this is a great point, because for me "blackface Halloween costuming" is always offensive, even if one is a private citizen. The reason for this is that it shirks the personal responsibility we all have to foster a more open, tolerant society. I think this standard applies to professional hockey players too, in that they have a personal responsibility for helping fashion a more inclusive sport. Reasonable people can disagree, but having the discussion in good faith, while often times exhausting, is absolutely worthwhile.

Anyways, I want to thank everyone for commenting on my post yesterday, it was the biggest thread in the history of the site (sadly) and reading through the comments this morning, I find them subtly hopeful. Yes even the crass ones. No one in 104 comments defended the concept of racial stereotyping for even a heartbeat, we were mostly just discussing what should and should not be acceptable behavior in the year 2011. Thanks again.

  • Here I am, commenting *again* on one my fellow columnists posts…

    It needs to be repeated – there are still a substantial number of people who are offended by such costumes. *You* may not intend to offend, but others take offence and that must be understood.

    James Mirtle asked me a good question today on twitter, “what’s the number?” he asked in response to me saying that if a decent number of people are going to be offended by an act or a costume, it’s probably not a good idea. “There are always going to be cranks on any issue, so throw them out. If you’ve got any left over, then probably that number,” I replied. Minority rights matter.

    Raffi Torres chose to dress up as Jay-Z because, apparently, “he’s a really big fan.” That’s fine as motivation, but representations matter. He’s blackened his skin. People used to blacken their skin for offensive reasons. Despite our wanting to live in a post-racial world, we don’t and there are still people who get angry about even the potential for confusion about intent. Just leave it alone; instead fight for the day when we can put on a costume and not have to think about “will someone be offended?”

  • instead fight for the day when we can put on a costume and not have to think about “will someone be offended?”

    someone is ALWAYS going to be offended. And sorry, but “quibbling about the definition of “blackface” is a huge matter in the argument. There was no intention by Torres to offend, and the costume was based on a living breathing human being. There were no sterotypes attached to his costume, no down on one knee “mammie” singing, no watermelon eating, nothing of the sort to even connect it with “black face”. crying wolf at every “incident” does nothing but continue racist beliefs. Being the “race police” for every little thing that isn’t even racial perpetuates racism more than anything.

  • And again, what if he wore a Jay-Z mask? An Obama mask? Both of which you can find at a costume store. Is that racist or have racist overtones? So a guy uses make up instead of a rubber mask…the difference please? One of the white anchors on the Today show on NBC dressed as Beyonce the other day? Racist? There is a VERY distinct line between “black face” and what Torres did for a costume.