Ban on a Morris Dance tradition splits opinion in England

Claire Dixon —  September 8, 2016 — 88 Comments

SHROPSHIRE, England — A row has erupted after the organisers of the Shrewsbury Folk Festival (SFF) decided to ban morris dancers from wearing blackface at this year’s event. The annual festival is one of the biggest of its kind in England, and it celebrates folk music and traditions from across the UK and farther afield. A morris dancing contingent is customary. However, this year’s costuming tradition must be changed due to the ban precipitated by an equality campaign group, Fairness and Racial Equality in Shropshire (FRESh).

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Photo Credit: P. Dixon]

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Photo Credit: P. Dixon]

Festival director Sandra Sutrees said, “After last year’s festival, the event was accused of racial harassment and threatened with legal action by FRESh, following performances by morris sides wearing full-face black make-up in the town centre.” In a statement, the organisers of SFF further stressed, “The festival finds itself caught between two sides of this opposing argument and believe that this is a national issue that should not be focused solely on SFF.”

Morris is a traditional English dance, others of which include sword and clog dancing. Some Morris sides, especially what is known as border morris, (so called as it is a dancing style that originates from the Welsh border counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire) paint their faces black. In other words, the dancer appears with all or most of the face covered in black make-up as part of the costume or guise.

There are many theories on the origin of this tradition in morris. One is that it was a form of Moorish dance, which inspired its name. Another is that it is from an ancient folk custom known as guising, which was used at various festival times, such as Hallowe’en and while dancing to protect oneself from malevolent spirits. As it was common during festival periods, it has also been used in mummers plays, which are often performed around Easter or Christmas, and they often incorporate aspects of Pagan traditions.

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Photo Credit: P. Dixon]

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Photo Credit: P. Dixon]

Guising also had a more practical application of protecting the identity of beggars during a time when it was still illegal in England and Wales. They often hid their faces under a layer of soot or coal dust. As Sutrees explained: “The use of full-face black make-up is an age old tradition, particularly within border morris. The morris movement has always evolved over time and some sides have made their own decisions to move away from using full-face black make-up towards other forms of colour and disguise.

“In the past 18 months, of the three sides we booked for this year’s festival, two have already moved away from wearing full-face black make up of their own volition.”

The stressing of blackface as an ancient tradition is a sentiment echoed by Adam Garland. The outgoing Ring Squire (leader) of the Morris Ring states: “All over the world, one finds traditional folk customs for which costume and face paint are integral parts; for example, certain tribal dancers in Africa white their faces for the performance. In England, the Morris world is no different; many morris clubs use face paint as part of their costume.”

The ban was welcomed by FRESh leader Jonathan Hyams, who applauded the change as representing sensitivity to “a changed social climate”.

In a public statement, Hyams said: “From FRESh’s perspective, it is good news. We entirely understand the argument from morris dancing communities that this is something that goes back to tradition. However, there are other ways of celebrating this other than “blacking up,” which has very strong connotations of racism.”

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Photo Credit: P. Dixon]

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Photo Credit: P. Dixon]

However, the ban has provoked anger from some parts of the morris community. Garland responded, “The theory of the tradition originating as a form of disguise through the use of soot has been well documented. These days within the three organisations – The Morris Ring, the Morris Federation, and The Open Morris – a whole range of different colours can be seen in many places around the country. The use of one particular colour within these costumes is in no way a statement against one particular societal group and the morris community refutes the accusation of racism most strongly.”

One aspect that has complicated the issue is the guising tradition being conflated with the more modern version of blackface coming from American customs, such as the old minstrel shows that were still being televised in the UK as late as the 1970s. The Morris Ring of the UK is keen to stress the differences between the two customs.

The ban has divided dancers and locals alike. Joseph Healy, secretary of the Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers, who are a clog dancing side from Lancashire in the North West of England and who traditionally used coconuts on their clogs to make a distinctive sound, told LBC radio that for his side, the tradition came from the mining heritage of the area. He added: “We will always dance in blackface because that is the complete and full costume we turn out in.”

Richard Day told to BBC Radio Shropshire, “Just because we have done something for a long time does not necessarily mean we should continue it – unless you want to bring back the burning of witches, maybe?” The Shrewsbury Folk Festival has decided that from 2017, they will not book any troupes that still use blackface.

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Photo Credit: P. Dixon]

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Photo Credit: P. Dixon]

Meanwhile, the Morris Federation is attempting to move the debate forward and open up a dialogue about the issue. It said in a statement: “Blacking up in morris is a very sensitive and emotive subject and we are truly saddened by the division it has caused among morris dancers. We would like to reiterate that the Morris Federation is currently seeking legal advice on the impact of blacking up in morris and chairing an open discussion with our membership at our AGM on September 24th.”

It looks like this debate is set to continue.

CORRECTION 9/20/2016: The original story suggested that it was the Shopshire Council that had banned blackface. But we confirmed that the decision was made by the Shrewsbury Folk Festival. The article has been corrected.

Claire Dixon


Claire Dixon is a Bardic level druid with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and a member of the Pagan Federation. She is a married mother of three based in Worcestershire, England. Claire is an avid astrologer, having studied the subject since her early teens, and has written extensively on astrology/astronomy for Pagan publications. She also loves researching British and Irish history and mythology. Claire is also an 80s TV boxset freak (Kip Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood is a particular favourite) and Earl Grey tea fan.
  • zormpas

    Political Correctness run amok – AGAIN.

    • Charles Cosimano

      Someone needs to tell the PC crowd to shove it and ignore them.

      • Kate Ross

        Eh. I’ve found that the entire pagan world is overrun with PC crap.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I’m itching to know who filed the original complaint.

    • Jonathan

      Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer not to upset people for no reason. I just call that “polite”!

      • Franklin_Evans

        And if they’re “upset” out of ignorance, do we simply abandon a huge chunk of our vocabulary?

        See also a public official correctly using the word “niggardly” in a sentence, then being fired because people of color who heard him were upset. That he was later reinstated means nothing in this context.

        • Jonathan

          A “huge chunk”? One word?

          • Franklin_Evans

            No descriptive word is immune to this sort of emotional demand to change its meaning or prohibit its use.

          • Jonathan

            No word is immune, but few words are likely to be affected in practice. We’ve identified one here.

            Language changes. And that’s fine by me.

          • Franklin_Evans

            As much as I will complain about lexicon shifts — and I’m a card-carrying curmudgeon — I agree that it not only will shift but must shift.

            I believe I have some validity in the complaint that emotional objection is just not enough by itself. If their goal is to mitigate or shift the use of words as expressions of the power to oppress or suppress, I can and will work with that — see also my reply to Cat C-B citing gay reclaiming of words.

          • Jonathan

            Right. But it’s not just an emotional objection, is it? It’s an emotional objection in light of a lifetime of the sort of socially-structured experiences I mentioned below.

            I take the weight of that very seriously, and so I interpret these complaints in light of that.

          • Franklin_Evans

            I return to the comparison with people of color getting someone fired for correctly using the word “niggardly” in a sentence. The emotional objection to Morris sides’ blackened faces is of the same order of ignorance. Shrug.

          • Kate Ross

            I second you on this one.

      • zormpas

        That’s nice – but there’s a huge difference between politeness and Political Correctness. People need to grow some skin and “get a life”.

        • Jonathan

          What’s the difference? I can’t see it 🙂

          • zormpas

            That is indeed 3/4s of the problem. Let’s just say PC is a WHOLE lot shriller and often goes to the point of being ridiculous.

            Or to put it another way – from the opposite side so to speak: I have zero patience with those who actively search for an excuse to be “offended”.

          • Jonathan

            It’s interesting you use the word “shrill”. Who is normally shrill, in your experience?

            It’s also interesting that you infer that this has arisen from people “actively searching” to be offended. Why do you think they do this?

          • zormpas

            Not sure why – maybe our entitlement driven society?

          • Jonathan

            “Entitlement driven society” Forgive me – and I assume you’re American, and I don’t know much about American society – I don’t understand what you mean?

          • zormpas

            That’s a discussion that’s way beyond what’s possible here – Google is your friend. But I note that you had no problem identifying me as American – we’re overrun with “entitlist” thought and deed.

          • Jonathan

            So you don’t think you’re entitled to be treated kindly by others?

          • zormpas

            I don’t think anybody’s entitled to expect everybody to bend over backwards because the person might be “offended”. In other words, if “you” are looking to be offended, I really don’t care. Too bad, so sad. This is just one minor example of how American society has gone down hill in the last generation or so.

          • Jonathan

            I find it hard to believe that people’s actions leave you so unaffected. If that were true, you would not have posted here – you are quite clearly offended by the idea of entitlement, for example, and you clearly expect other people to conform to your expectations by not expressing entitlement.

          • zormpas

            So now we’re into the PC doublespeak. I’m done!

          • Kate Ross

            Maddening, isn’t it?

          • Kate Ross

            I really have to admit something here…you come off rather sanctimonious, like you’re saying “Look at me, look at how much kinder and nicer I am than you lowly plebes! You are unwashed barbarians compared to me!”

            Is that the idea? Are you trolling? Is this what you want people to think?

          • You don’t understand how search engines, especially Google, actually work these days, do you?

          • kenofken

            Politeness is a proportionate response to a realistic consensus of social convention and what offends reasonable people. Political correctness is a form of idealogical fundamentalism which demands purity of thought and speech and which tells others, especially less privileged minorities what they should find offensive. PC patronizes and infantalizes those who the self appointed guardians purport to protect.

      • John Miller

        Are you talking about the Morris sides that are upset or is this a one-sided upset?

  • When I read the headline, I wondered what on earth the banned tradition might be. Blackface didn’t even cross my mind–as an American, the deeply offensive nature of blackface is just so well established.

    And whether there is a history of the practice separate from anti-black racism or not, this one really is a case where impact trumps whatever that original intent might have been.

    When our traditions support racist stereotypes, whether or not that’s the original meaning of a practice does not matter. Times change, symbols change, and anyone who thinks this one doesn’t evoke Jim Crow and minstrel shows is kidding themselves.

    • Jules Morrison

      It reminds me of using swastikas because they used to be good luck symbols. Sure they did but that’s not what they mean now, is it? And blackface in morris dancing is questionable at best. The idea it might be entirely innocent rests on the half examined belief that there used to be no black people around, or no racism. Both entirely incorrect! Traditional imagery is cram full of racism. Golliwogs are traditional. Only a jerk would put continuity of tradition above being respectful to others (in ways our ancestors were not).

      • It reminds me of using swastikas because they used to be good luck symbols. Sure they did but that’s not what they mean now, is it?

        Not to at least a billion Hindus and Shintoists, for starters….

    • Katmandu2

      This also shows ignorance (williful or otherwise) on the part of the complainers. If it was an allusion to Moors, it was talking about dark people. I doubt folks would be using a celebration and allusion to dark-skinned folks if they were wanting to be racist dicks about it. If it was an allusion to folks covered in coal-dust or a way to disguise one’s face, it’s not racist. How about someone actually teach folks about the tradition, its meanings, and its origins before simply kow-towing?

      On a related note, I can see folks also getting into trouble if they wear another color that happens to resemble black. Saying that this is like the American blackface tradition is like saying a kimono is like a bathrobe. The only thing they have in common is look if one takes just a cursory glance.

    • W

      “When our traditions support racist stereotypes, whether or not that’s
      the original meaning of a practice does not matter. Times change,
      symbols change, and anyone who thinks this one doesn’t evoke Jim Crow
      and minstrel shows is kidding themselves.”

      The above is a steaming pile of bovine defecation.

      Blackface is a SPECIFIC make-up style. It’s done with exaggerated painted on lips and costuming that mimicked the dress of African Americans.

      The costuming of Morris dancing in no way follows this style.Only an idiot would suggest that it does.

      The Morris dancing troupes should be suing any venue that refuses to hire them because of their make-up for publicly defaming them.

      Times DO indeed change. No one dresses in black face and performs minstrel shows anymore that I’m aware of. It’s commercially nonviable. So centuries old traditional garb in no ways evokes them. Doubly so in a European, non-American country.

      • Franklin_Evans

        I cannot condone your scatological euphemism. It is always possible to disagree passionately without it.

      • Kate Ross

        I second your comment very strongly!

    • claire dixon

      I take your point Cat, it’s a very sensitive issue, however, part of the danger in reacting to this is projecting American perceptions onto this. Although the Black and White Minstrel Show was televised in the UK, we don’t have that tradition here or a history of Jim Crow type laws. Obviously, our Colonial past brings with it a different type of dynamic, but comparing it in this way does not help the issue.

      • Verity

        Well said.

      • Sadly, I don’t think England is immune from racism or racial stereotypes. That minstrel shows were popular in the UK on television, and right up to the 70s, suggests that there is a ready market for importing that brand of racism. Given that, it doesn’t matter that Morris has another history or that Jim Crow specifically is not an English tradition. Symbols, and their meanings change. This one runs a risk of encouraging just the sort of attitudes that have led to the uptick in racism in the US recently… And, I note, which the experiences of Eastern Europeans in England since the Brexit vote seems to suggest England isn’t immune to.

        We’re always sensitive when it’s our own beloved traditions that need to change. But what is at stake for black people and racial minorities is of great enough consequence that I think those of us not on the receiving end of systemic racism can live with a little emotional discomfort. No, it isn’t fun to examine our own practices that way. But it’s part of committing to becoming a more just society.

        I think the county council made a good call.

        • claire dixon

          I agree it’s a very sensitive issue. Neither am I trying to make out that it is a racist free paradise over here, as it most certainly is not. I also agree that symbols and their meanings change, I think what is a shame is that the council issued a ban without any discussion, rather than trying to get together all the parties involved to work something out. Those kinds of actions also run the risk of encouraging racist attitudes. The way that the Council have enforced the ban has not helped in that regard.

          • Verity

            Well said. This is what bothers me as well. The knee-jerk reaction to join in the assumption that of course this must be equal to minstrel show blackface. This does more to foster racism than to alleviate it.

        • Franklin_Evans

          Cat, it must matter, or we are all doomed to a failure of one of the things that makes us unique as a species: language.

          I followed closely and was a privileged witness to conversations over the gay reclaiming of “faggot” and “queer”. Their purpose and goal was very clear: to negate the power of those words in the common lexicon. That is a world of difference with a centuries old, never changed in that time symbol and its meaning being hijacked into a context in which it has neither logical nor emotional validity… except from the arbitrary claims of those who either don’t care or don’t want to have their ignorance shown to them.

          I always hesitate to use argument by analogy, but please consider this as a teacher: would you agree to give a passing grade to students who’ve failed to master the content you are presenting, because their being upset is more important than their ignorance?

          • Kate Ross

            I’m not quite sure I understand the connection of grades to this Morris dancing situation. Can you explain a bit further?

          • Franklin_Evans

            … thus proving why I so rarely use analogies in discussions. 😉

            I’m not suggesting a connection there. I’m trying to get my mental hands around Cat’s points and position, and be as clear as possible about my objections to them.

            My implied comparison: if we “reward” people of color (or any identity group with which we have a strong sympathy, if not something even stronger) by accepting every objection they make, without considering the rational points involved, then I could see that as being tantamount to “rewarding” students who have no rational claim to a passing grade by giving them one solely because they are upset over not getting one.

            Maybe I should just disavow this tangent. My desire to understand Cat is sincere. Obfuscating the point would just be defeating. Shrug.

        • Kate Ross

          I wish I could put into words how…..ridiculous I find your premise. But I can’t. Just know that not everyone subscribes to your point of view – and they aren’t wrong just because of that.

      • Kate Ross

        Yeah well we Americans tend to think we’re everyone’s referent.

    • Kate Ross

      Sorry but I don’t see it as you do. I cannot disagree more.

  • Mustangofold

    So FRESh is projecting another cultures use of black face from a later time period onto a different cultural/ethnic groups earliet tradition and demanding it be whitewashed or they will litigate.
    Perfect reasoning on the part of FRESh I see.

  • Jeremy Smith

    I’ve yet to see a blacked up morris side with white eyes, lips and gloves singing Swannie River. As for FRESh’s comment ” … there are other ways of celebrating this other than “blacking up,” which has very strong connotations of racism.” certainly not for the dancers and only for you I expect…..

  • Tauri1

    What I find interesting is that apparently there are some AFRICANS who paint their faces WHITE during some of their dances in Africa. So does that mean that people should demand that tradition stop because it implies reverse racism?

    • Jonathan

      There. is. No. Such. Thing. As. Reverse. Racism.

      • Verity

        I agree with your statement, because any racism is racism including racial bias against whites – which does indeed exist. One may argue that there is less racism against whites than blacks or any other race, but that doesn’t negate its existence.

        Personally, I long for the day when the labels disappear entirely.

        • Jonathan

          So, a common misnomer is that “racism” means “bigotry based on skin-colour”.

          But critical race theory has demonstrated that the bigotry experienced by black and brown people is qualitatively different to that experienced by white people. This is because bigotry against black and brown people is backed up by an entire social structure (created through colonialism, the slave trade etc), in a way that bigotry against white people is not. Indeed, that same system privileges people who are defined by it as white.

          Think of it like the class system. It’s possible for a rich person to experience financial misfortune, or to be treated unfairly because of their wealth. But that doesn’t negate the existence of a system that exploits the poor, for the benefit of the wealthy.

          Any bigotry is bad. But if we have any hope of moving to a world where no bigotry exists, we need to understand that not all bigotry works in the same way.

          • Franklin_Evans

            Very well put.

          • Jonathan

            When you hear “Racism”, think “Race-ISM”. That is, a whole ideology based on race.

            Individual black people being mean to individual white people does not an ideology make.

          • Kate Ross

            No thanks. I can’t agree with you. Sorry.

        • Kate Ross

          I agree with you. Racism is just racism. Period.

          People can get into splitting hairs about what KIND of racism certain people face – but that doesn’t mean it’s *not* racism.

          It’s. Still. Racism.

          It’s. Still. Racism.

          It’s. Still. Racism.

  • Having connections to England, i’m very torn on this.
    The practise has very different origins from American blackface — but with the globalisation of culture resultant from Kapitalism, the two practises seem too similar to those unfamiliar with the cultural nuance.
    Morris dance has origins in pre-Christian traditions, and almost certainly the blackened faces of some dancers originated with some ritual significance, and the tradition stuck around. This is make-up of full-coverage pitch-black. Granted, there are gaps in the historic record, but going from what *is* known, it’s certainly logically consistent.
    American blackface originated with racism, pure and simple. The mouth in traditional blackface performances (such as in 1928’s The Jazz Singer) is painted stark white and overdrawn around the mouth as a grotesque caricature of very full “African” lips. This is far better documented.
    Neither looks like a realistic mimic of the face of a person from Africa or the African diaspora, but they don’t have to, for it to be offensive.
    While I certainly understand those pointing out that this is contextually a world apart from American blackface, I can certainly understand the desire to err on the side of caution.

    • claire dixon

      Totally agree Ruadhan, it’s a very difficult one to resolve. They are two very distinct traditions, which should be considered. The ban at SFF was hastily applied, which is never a way to make good decisions. I think it would be much better to have some in depth discussions about this with representatives from BME communities before forging a path ahead.

  • I regularly attend May Morning in East Palo Alto. The Border Morris (or are they the Molly tradition? Not sure, as the difference may be regional rather than stylistic) is usually represented, in dress very like shown above. They paint their faces, but sometimes the paint is merely dark, not black–blues, greens, reds, browns…that sort of thing.

    While many Border Morris sides call themselves Mollys, pretty much the same tradition comes out of the eastern counties, such as East Anglia. To learn more about Molly dance, visit

    In Wales and the bordering counties, participants in the Rebecca Riots of the late 19th C., usually men, with men wearing female clothing, blackening their faces and conducting mock trials; and but it was already on a significant increase in the late 1830s in Wales, where the wearing of women’s clothes was an established part of traditional Welsh community justice (the “Ceffyl Pren”, wooden horse) for punishing or frightening those guilty of violating community mores.

    This custom never had anything to do with race. The original “ploughboys” and “Rebeccas” blackened their faces as a disguise to escape recognition and the consequences of their mischievous actions. In the areas where mining was prevalent, dancers were imitating the unfortunate consequence of working underground on a miner’s face.

    As my son points out, well-meaning but ill-informed persons crying racism-this and discrimination-that, with no input or complaint from the parties/group on whose behalf they are incensed, are often barking up the wrong tree, seeing something harmful, being hyper-sensitive, making mountains out of molehills, believing that they are protecting the parties for whom they are concerned.

    That being said, I am truly not in favor of sports teams involving non-Native Americans using NA names, terms, or symbolism–which are generally derogatory or disrespectful. You will find NA tribes unhappy with those usages: I’m just an ally, also asking for changes to these things. With BLM as well, I’ve been paying attention for years, and thus am plenty outraged, and trying to help effect change–as an ally, supporting and not trying to usurp a place which is not mine.

    • claire dixon

      It’s Border Morris. It originates from the counties along the Welsh border of England, sometimes referred to as the Welsh Marches, namely, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Molly Dancing, as you rightly point out, comes from East Anglia (Eastern England) and is a slightly different tradition.

  • Verity

    How in the world does this equate to minstrel show blackface? This is truly silly, taking offense where none is meant. Or in this case it seems that a tradition that has nothing to do with racism must be stopped just in case anyone could possibly take mistaken offense. Care to take a stroll on eggshells, anyone? So I guess we should give up pentagrams while we’re at it because some people associate them with the Christian devil?

    SMH. I wish people could see that strife is actually fostered by taking such political correctness to the nth degree. It promotes anything but peace between peoples.

    • Kate Ross

      I really like your comment about the pentagrams.

  • It’s really hard for Pagans to let go of our favorite practices, isn’t it? If The Wild Hunt kept comment threads open this one would reach into the hundreds, I suppose.

    We are so angry when we are asked to consider our own actions in a new, less-than-flattering light.

    • Verity

      It’s really hard to let someone insist that some practices are offensive when no offense is meant and never has been.

      We are angry when people try to force a different interpretation on our traditions rather than asking us about their real meaning and considering them in their true light instead of their own erroneous assumptions.

      Again I ask: Should pagans give up the pentagram because some people see it in a less-than flattering light? Because that is the logic here.

      • Don’t a lot of witchcraft and other pagan ethics also teach that intent alone isn’t mafic, that actions must follow intent? I think the whole “but it’s not meant to be offensive!” argument is just a pretty shitty excuse to simply not think about how action can contradict intent.

        • Franklin_Evans

          I’m not a witch or anything close, but my ethical stance is in complete agreement with the intent-action abstract. A sincere question: how can you apply this to the specifics of the Morris dancers’ practice? As you mentioned in another post, if you prefer to err on the side of caution but cannot rationally connect the caution to the intent-action — which I maintain is just not rationally valid to connect Morris blackened face with racism against people of color out of sub-Saharan Africa — then where is the connection rationally supported?

          I also read that you are torn over this. That, and my general trust in you, prompts me to direct my question to you.

        • Kate Ross

          But if it’s the bare truth, it’s the bare truth. Sometimes things are actually *not* meant to be offensive. On some level, the offended party has to take responsibility for why they feel offended.

          Doesn’t anyone here practice something like Buddhist mindfulness? If so, don’t you see how you are assuming the worst about other people when this could very well be unjustified?

          Why insist that other people need to look into their motivations if you won’t look into your own first? WHY do you assume the worst from the get-go?

      • Kate Ross

        I absolutely second you Verity. 100%

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I wonder if there isn’t a way to both preserve the essence of this tradition, but also not go to the point of looking like what people associate with blackface/the Black and White Minstrel shows, etc.

    In several areas (the Channel Islands, e.g.), there are practices where someone plays the “coal-black smith.” That is clearly a reference to a job hazard, so to speak, like the Welsh miners noted above. Though, anyone who has seen the chimney sweeps scene in Mary Poppins and the senile Admiral Boom’s reaction to their spirited dancing on the roofs as an invasion by “Hottentots” knows that this “mistake” can be rather easily made by those who simply don’t know the different realities involved well enough.

    [There’s also the long-standing idea of the “black man” in places like Ireland, where dubh was understood to not only mean “black/dark,” but also “evil/morally suspect,” and thus when the Irish came into increasing contact with Africans, they realized they shouldn’t use those terms to describe Africans for fear it might give the wrong impression and portray them unfairly due to a linguistic bias…and thus they evolved the phrase fer gorm, “blue man,” to describe Africans, which was morally neutral. Kind of puts a different spin on the Blue Man Group, then…and yet, we hear no calls for them to abolish their act even though it is, historically speaking, brand new, and being ignorant of the Irish references in this case could be equally used as justification for why they shouldn’t do that. Interesting to consider as a parallel matter, in any case, and yet there is near-total ignorance about this and how something that looks “innocent” might in fact be racially charged due to symbols being interpreted differently.]


    What if only the cheeks, let’s say, were blackened, leaving some space around the edges, and perhaps a certain amount (but not full coverage) on the forehead that would look more like soot stains than like what some may mistake for an attempt to look like a different ethnicity, and perhaps a spot on the nose as well? That would preserve the essence of the tradition, and be an homage to the various workers whose appearances might have contributed to these traditions, but not run the risk of looking like something done that is racially insensitive…?

    • claire dixon

      A similar chimney sweep tradition still exists in Kent (south east England)

  • DesertKitsune

    1. No one is 100% sure where the tradition originated, so why is it so difficult to adjust certain things to the current times? Such as just a different color? Or do something that makes it obvious that you’re not attempting to portray a black person.

    “In Japan, a trend called ganguro (literally “black face”) caught on in the mid-1990s as a way to rebel against traditional Japanese notions of beauty, but the fashion differs widely from blackface iconography, usually featuring girls in long blond wigs.”

    2. If you’re using the mining history as a reason, than perhaps you should dress as minors to make it obvious what the intended impact is.

    3. Why must it be *full* face paint? Why simply smudge here and there?

    4. (Sorry for the wall, but let’s not try too pretend black face with racial connotations has remained strictly and American thing.)

    “Does blackface carry racist connotations outside the United States?


    “Rudyard Kipling noted blackface among British troops in India, and when Commodore Perry famously sailed into Tokyo Bay to open Japan to the West, he brought a minstrel show with him. Even today, the legacies of blackface survives in countries all over the world—accompanied by varying degrees of condemnation. The comics character Memín Pinguín remains popular in Mexico, and even came out in postage stamps in 2005, despite criticism that the character is depicted using racist iconography. In the Netherlands and Belgium, where Lt. Dratwa is originally from, they celebrate the holidays with Zwarte Piet (literally “Black Pete”), once thought to be Santa’s slave, and now a dark-skinned, wigged, and big-lipped helper. In 2009, Harry Connick Jr. was stunned when, while appearing on a reunion special of an Australian variety show, he was asked to judge a blackface performance of a group calling themselves the Jackson Jive. While the judges gave the performance low scores, many in the audience cheered, and Connick asked to address the camera to explain why it was so offensive to him as an American. In Germany, performances by actors in blackface are still relatively common, though many Germans insist that these depictions are not racist but simply arise from a shortage of black actors. A billboard in Berlin that featured a comedian posing in blackface with the caption “Ick bin ein Obama” (“I am an Obama”) similarly attracted protests from black Germans, but the comedian denied that he was participating in any racist tradition.”

    Source for quotations:

    • Kate Ross

      Simply stating “I am not doing this to portray a black person” should be sufficient.

  • Jonathan

    I think this is an extremely positive step on the part of the Shropshire Folk Festival. Folk culture in England rightly belongs to everyone – regardless of race, creed, or ethnic origin – and something as divisive and potentially upsetting as blacking up isn’t acceptable, irrespective of whether or not it is “traditional”. Black British friends of mine have expressed privately to me how upsetting they find it to see Border Morris sides donning black face, and so it is for their sake that I take this view.

    Border Morris sides used to use coal dust. Nowadays, it’s more usual to use face-paint – it’s easier to get hold of, less toxic, and washes off more easily. That’s already a change in the tradition to reflect changing circumstances; there should not be no controversy about doing so again. Custom in England is constantly changing; and I see that as no bad thing.

    Wanting to avoid upsetting people unnecessarily is just good manners. I fail to see why this is a problem.

    • Kate Ross

      Well, people are now upset…because their tradition is being disrupted. But that’s ok, right?

      You’ve already upset someone, so your goal of not upsetting people is a loss.

  • 1) Is/was Morris Dancing intended to mock an ethnic group?
    Yes or No

    The answer to that should be enough.

    • Franklin_Evans

      Judging solely from conversations I’ve had with Morris dancers in the U.S.: no.

  • Franklin_Evans

    I invite as a comparison point learning about the origins of Flamenco. People usually assume that this is a Spanish cultural mainstay, and while current culture in Spain certainly may think that way — and with every reason to respect that claim — it is very much a North African import and fusion.

    The guitar style is a direct derivation from the oud, an Arab instrument. Castenets are variations of Arab finger cymbals. As an amateur ethnomusicologist (an avid follower of the real ones), I was astonished and thrilled to see in the original production of “Riverdance” a full circle of connection and influence around the Mediterranean basin, with Irish step dancing to the accompaniment of Bulgarian folk instruments (the Celts carried much with them from Asia Minor and the Balkans), and the featuring of Flamenco dance styling’s clear connection to Irish dance.

    Pagans are passionate about our roots. We are equally passionate about appropriation. But when we can witness a clearly faithful preservation of an ancient tradition, why is it necessary to project modern sensitivities on it?

  • Franklin_Evans

    I’ve seen and delighted in Morris sides with one or more people of color participating. Maybe they discussed blackening, maybe they didn’t, but I find it difficult to care either way.

    I’m an international folk dancer, and was an instructor for nearly 20 years. I’ve danced Turkish dances with Armenians. I’ve danced German dances with Jews. I’ve danced Israeli dances with Germans and Russians. I’ve taught and performed dances from nearly every ethnicity from Scandinavia to the Middle East. The most influential dancer in my life was a person of color. No one will get away with insisting that someone should have been upset or offended.

    • kenofken

      A big question I have in this issue is whether any actual people of color in England expressed offense at the Morris paint tradition? Are they offended or are white progressives projecting onto them what they feel they should be offended by? If it’s the latter, it’s a really patronizing and frankly a colonialist attitude in its own right.

      • Franklin_Evans

        There is an observable disconnect between the vast majority of African-Americans (and in other nations) with beyond legitimate grievances being from sub-Saharan Africa, and the Morris (and Flamenco) traditions being from North Africa’s Mediterranean coastal areas. The hue of their dancers’ skin is a direct connection to the skin hue of ethnic/genetic Arabs. There is no rational basis to making it mean anything to people of color whose skin hue originates from sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Julia Traver

    Idiots!!! I am just going to scream. There is just so much general stupidity out there because no one seems to really study HISTORY any more. I would have thought that British people would have been more aware of their own Morris traditions. Here in SE CT and RI there are a number of Morris groups. I have learned a lot about the traditions from some of their members.

    • Kate Ross

      Well, the PC police have become that demanding – history doesn’t even matter any more. Or they prefer to engage in “revisionist history.”

      This has been prevalent in the pagan world for at least two decades.

  • Michael Kennedy

    This ‘racist’ thing is EXTREMELY selective in its approach – to wit, BLACK – Royal Liberty Morris have yellow as part of their face colouring, but no complaints about “Offending” the Orientals.
    Leicester Morris Men have all red faces, but no complaints about “Offending” American Indians either.
    This leads me to conclude it’s just another vexatious complaint by those that think we should still be self-flagellating for the sins of our forefathers.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      If self-flagellation for the sins of our forefathers were the idea there would be objection to yellow and red face coloring, because our forefathers sinned against those folks, too.