Arab Racism: Blackface, Staple of Arab Comedy, Faces Surge of Criticism

CAIRO — On the Libyan comedy show, the punch line was in the baby carriage.

An elevator door slams shut, separating the mother — an actress in blackface — from her babies. A hidden camera shows unsuspecting passengers trapped inside with the baby carriage.

“Watch my babies!” the mother calls out in mock horror.

But when the passengers pull back the carriage cover, a pair of monkeys leap out.

Blackface, a racist entertainment device with roots in 19th-century America, is alive and well in mainstream Arab entertainment. On television networks across the Middle East, performers regularly darken their faces in comedy skits to wring cheap laughs from demeaning stereotypes and centuries-old prejudices.

The practice is offensive enough in the United States that when a photo of a man in blackface was discovered on the medical-school yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, he faced widespread demands to resign. In Italy, the state airline Alitalia was forced to pull an advertisement in July in which an actor in blackface portrayed former President Barack Obama.

In the Arab world, where racism is a deeply rooted yet rarely discussed issue, blackface comedy is facing a surge of criticism on social media, even forcing the occasional apology. But the practice remains widespread and acceptable enough to be a staple on major television networks.