Over the past 40 years “blacking up” by TV, stage, and cinema performers has all but disappeared with most people regarding it as distasteful and inappropriate. Yet despite pubic disproval blacking-up has survived and is flourishing within the Morris dancing and folk music community including, to its shame, the prestigious Broadstairs Folk Week.
The festival’s official Facebook page includes several photographs of “blacked up” Morris dancers participating in the 2016 “Big Parade – a family-friendly procession of music, morris and magic” which launches the festival each year. Their inclusion in the parade amounts to an official endorsement by festival organisers of blacking-up and the racist message which this sends out.
The festival’s website encourages Morris dance troupes across the country to visit Broadstairs Folk Week “to busk and take part in our big parade” and “to perform in show spots and run workshops”. In exchange performers receive free festival tickets worth £39 per day and subsidised camping for £5 per night. Some of the Morris troupes taking advantage of this generous offer black-up to perform. To provide those who engage in this offensive behaviour with the equivalent of £39 per day plus cheap camping is nothing less than a disgraceful financial subsidy for racism by the festival organisers and Director Tuffs.
Whatever the historic explanations and justifications for blacking-up might be this practice is no longer acceptable, especially in a modern, diverse and inclusive society. Instead of encouraging and supporting such offensive, racist, behaviour influential organisations and individuals in the Morris dancing and folk music community such as Tuffs and the Broadstairs Folk should be opposing and challenging it.
On 16th July I emailed the festival organisers writing that “to allow "blacked-up" Morris dancers to perform without challenge or criticism is insensitive, panders to racism and is plain wrong”. I pointed out that following complaints in 2016 the Shrewsbury Folk Festival had withdrawn its support from blacked-up Morris dancers and I urged the Broadstairs festival organisers, “to follow the brave and principled stance taken by the Shrewsbury Folk Festival and make a public statement about this totally unacceptable and racist practice before this year’s festival begins”
My e-mail went unanswered so I called the Folk Week office
on 26th July. My call was answered by Festival Director Jo Tuffs who as curt, off-handed and disinterested to the point of rudeness. I followed up this conversation with an e-mail to Tuffs expressing concerns about inaction over my complaint and offering to speak to the festival organising committee about the issue. I have not received a reply to this e-mail.
I have been left with the impression that Tuffs and her organising committee don’t give a damn about the offence being caused by the Border Morris dancers and are happy to continue to encourage and financially support what many people believe to be the racism in the guise of a tradition by this shameful group of performers.
Unless Tuffs and her organising committee take immediate action including the exclusion of Border Morris dancers from all official festival events, the withdrawal of free tickets to these dancers and the issuing of a statement dissociating the festival from blacked up dancers, I will contact the Charities Commission to ask for an investigation into whether Folk Week is in breach of its charitable objectives to promote multiculturalism. I will also contact Folk Week sponsors to ask them to reconsider funding a festival which currently appears to be encouraging and supporting racism.
It’s interesting to note that Broadstairs and St Peter’s Town Council, Thanet District Council and Kent County Council provide several thousands of pounds of funding to the Folk Week organisers. When providing such funding councils must adhere to the 2010 Equality Act and its public sector equality duty which requires funding to used, amongst other things, to “foster good relations” between people from different races and cultures and to “eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation”. Allowing public funds to be donated to an organisation which endorses and provides financial support to white Morris dancers who black-up is, in my book, tottally opposed to the public sector duty and if things don’t change Broadstairs and St Peter’s Town Council, Thanet District Council and Kent County Council should no longer fund Folk Week.
NOTE the overwhelming majority of those who visit, perform at, or volunteer to help at Folk Week are I am sure decent, music loving, non-racists who are coming to Broadstairs to enjoy themselves and I wish them well.
However the organisers of the festival have a duty to ensure that practices which offend, and which many perceive to be racist, should not in any way be tolerated or supported. I am extremely disappointed by the reaction of festival Director Jo Tuffs to my complaint and believe that she has demonstrated that she is not the right person to deal with this and should step aside to make room for someone who can.