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Monday, April 21, 2014

‘Nothing Racist’ in Blackface Dancers, English Candidate Insists

Video of the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup performing on Saturday in Lancashire, England.

To the ever-growing catalog of behaviors that are not racist according to European politicians â€" like comparing a black minister to an orangutan in Italy and sharing a fabricated image of President Obama staring at a banana in Russia â€" we can now add performing in blackface, thanks to a candidate for Parliament in rural England.

The candidate, Will Straw, who hopes to follow his father into Parliament as a Labour Party member, rushed to defend what he called the “proud tradition” of a blackface troupe of Morris dancers in Lancashire called the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup. On Saturday, Mr. Straw drew attention to the local Easter tradition when he posted a photograph of himself standing with a leader of the Bacup troupe on Twitter, hours after his Conservative Party opponent, Jake Berry, had done the same.

After Mr. Straw’s photograph prompted some outrage on Twitter, he returned to defend himself by posting a link to the troupe’s website, which explained that Morris dancing is a form of medieval folk dance originally called Moorish dancing said to bear some relationship to the dark-skinned North Africans who ruled Spain until 1492.

Running for office in one of England’s less multicultural areas, Mr. Straw also cast himself as a defender of tradition, writing in a blog post: “As many small towns throughout Britain struggle to maintain their identity against a tide of national retail chains, betting shops and fast food outlets, Bacup’s annual dance provides a window into a previous era. But it’s traditions from the past which give communities a sense of common identity for the present and the future.”

That explanation failed to satisfy many critics who noted that behaviors can be both traditional and racist.

The dispute left Mr. Straw contemplating some strange bedfellows, as Conservatives, including Daniel Hannan, a member of the European Parliament, and Stephen Burrell, a local councilor. But he was pilloried from the left by a Green Party candidate, Benali Hamdache.

Other observers noted that attitudes to race in Britain have been so slow to change that it was not until 1978 that the BBC stopped broadcasting a program called “The Black and White Minstrel Show.”

One of Mr. Straw’s critics, a recent graduate in London named Salome Wagaine, connected his defense of blackface Morris dancing to the continuing debate in the Netherlands over an old Christmas tradition, in which Dutch men, including the nation’s prime minister, Mark Rutte, still delight in blacking up to play Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, a dark-skinned helper of Santa Claus.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands recently defended taking part in the tradition of dressing up in blackface for Christmas.

Follow Robert Mackey on Twitter @robertmackey.