China’s Most Famous Laowai Apologizes for Blackface

By Matthew Bossons, February 11, 2019

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One of China’s most notable foreign stars, Mark Rowswell, better known in China by his stage name Dashan, apologized on Twitter on February 8 for appearing in blackface 35 years ago during a school assembly in Ottawa, Canada.

Rowswell is celebrated in China for his numerous TV appearances, including performances on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala – the most watched entertainment show in the world, as well as his efforts to introduce stand-up comedy to Chinese audiences and bridge the cultural divide between the Middle Kingdom and his home nation of Canada (he serves as Canada’s Goodwill Ambassador to China).

In his social media apology, Rowswell writes “I performed in blackface in high school in 1984. I meant no disrespect, but it was wrong. I am sorry. I don’t believe any of my friends understood the historical context or racist implications. It’s not hard to remember dumb things you did 30+ years ago, so let me share this.” Below is the image Rowswell shared, which shows him in blackface.

dashan-blackface.jpg
Image via @akaDashan/Twitter

Over a series of 10 tweets, Rowswell explains that the poor choice of make-up was made to help himself and three friends appear as The Temptations, whose hit track ‘My Girl’ they performed at a school assembly.

In both his Twitter apology and in a statement emailed to That’s, Rowswell asserts that he and his friends donned black makeup – which they purchased from a drama supplies outlet – to emulate their heroes and role models.

“We thought The Temptations were cool and we tried to copy their synchronized moves. We were not satirizing or making fun of The Temptations,” said Rowswell via email. “If anything, we were making fun of ourselves as a bunch of nerds trying to be way cooler than we ever could be.”

He also notes that, while one teacher commented that their performance might be racist, the school’s drama teacher said that “it was fine.”

Rowswell’s blackface revelation and apology comes amid a political firestorm in the United States as several politicians have been exposed for wearing blackface in the past. Mike Ertel, who was Florida’s secretary of state until January 24, resigned after being in office for just 16 days after it surfaced that he wore blackface to a 2005 Halloween party to mock Hurricane Katrina survivors. Three politicians in Virginia – including the state’s governor – are also under fire for blackface and other episodes of racism.

Rowswell told That’s that while he received no outside pressure to apologize and reveal his past blackface performance, he was spurred to join the conversation as a result of the latest news cycle.  

“On one hand, these are domestic American issues that don’t really have an impact on me personally, on the other hand these are people roughly my age that are refusing to own up for things they did in high school in the 1980s,” said Rowswell. “It’s a big part of the public discussion going on now, in the US but also around the world online. So, I thought this was a good opportunity for me to ‘be the change’ and offer something of a personal contribution and show people: it’s not hard to remember stupid things you did 35 years ago, and it’s not hard to own those mistakes and apologize. I think we need to do that to move forward.”

Rowswell’s apology tweet, as of press time, has garnered 78 retweets, 203 likes and 28 comments. Of the comments, many expressed support for his honesty, while others criticized how he was unaware of the racial implications of blackface in the ’80s.

“People in the ’80s absolutely knew blackface was wrong and racist,” wrote one Twitter user, who went on to note instances far prior to the 1980s when blackface was flagged as racist – both in literature and court. Hollywood, however, continued to utilize blackface in the 1980s and beyond.

MV5BNDU2NDIzMzU1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjUzOTcxNA-._V1_SX1500_CR0-0-1500-999_AL_.jpg
Robert Downey Jr. in blackface in Tropic Thunder. Image via Dreamworks/IMDB

A year before Rowswell and his friends donned black makeup in 1984, Hollywood heavyweight Dan Aykroyd wore it as well – in the comedy Trading Places. In 2008, action-comedy film Tropic Thunder, which was directed by Ben Stiller and featured an all-star lineup of Hollywood A-listers, featured Robert Downey Jr. in blackface. In Canada, a yearly Quebec New Year’s Eve comedy broadcast by Radio-Canada featured blackface as recently as 2013.  

Just days ago, Spike Lee stated that he is boycotting Prada and Gucci until they begin employing black designers, after the release of a balaclava-sweater that resembles blackface.

spike-lee-boycott-prada-gucci-truth-ruth.jpg
Screengrab via @officialspikelee/Instagram

“In America, blackface is considered particularly incendiary and immediately triggers a very strong reaction. It’s been considered taboo for a long time. Outside of the US, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, or at least it’s hasn’t been true in the past,” said Rowswell. “Growing up in Ottawa, Canada in the 1980s was a different experience from growing up in America. I’m not saying that racism is not a problem in Ottawa or Canada in general, but it is a long way from Virginia and [has] a different historical and social context.” He adds that he had never heard of Jim Crow, and didn’t know much about Al Jolson or black minstrel shows.

One aspect of the apology that numerous people have pointed out, both online and directly to That’s, is the fact that Rowswell has only addressed the incident on Twitter and failed to discuss his past blackface on Weibo – where he boasts a following of 3.8 million people (versus 10,400 on Twitter).

Some have argued (rightly, by our assessment) that blackface and racial sensitivity in general is an important conversation to have here in China – particularly in light of last year’s infamous CCTV Spring Festival Gala skit, which featured a Chinese woman in blackface with a prosthetic butt and chest. The skit, which was aired to an estimated 800 million people, according to Black Livity China, drew swift condemnation both domestically and abroad for its racially insensitive portrayal of black African people.

“It was shockingly, inconceivably ignorant. I know those performers and have worked with them in the past. In my experience they’re kind, intelligent, warm human beings. How could they do something so stupid?” said Rowswell, speaking in regards to the 2018 CCTV Spring Festival Gala. “Primarily, it’s social context and a lack of understanding, not bad intentions, and the solution is more discussion and education.”

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Screengrab via Youtube

In his email to That’s, Rowswell pondered whether he could aid in the discussion on race in China, writing “Maybe I can contribute to that, but frankly, I think that discussion has to primarily happen between Chinese and Africans, explaining to an audience in China why that kind of portrayal is just not acceptable in today’s world.”

As of press time, Rowswell has not uploaded his apology to his official Weibo.

UPDATE (February 12, 2019 at 12.16am CST): This article has been updated to clarify that Rowswell’s blackface incident occurred 35 years ago, not 25, as originally reported in the opening paragraph.

[Cover image via @大山/Weibo]

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