An “alternative” Valentines Day party at the Yellowknife Elks Lodge hall encouraged participants to dress up as animals, creatures, and flora and fauna they might find in a jungle. But it was one outfit – the wearer says was a snake – that had people concerned.
Dressed in full body paint from the waist and up, the man painted himself with red lines, red paint around his mouth and lower jaw, white fangs and snake-like contact lenses.
The NWT Creative Collective (NWTCC) Alt V-day event had a designated safety squad, which was notified the man’s costume held uncomfortable resemblances to blackface — a derogatory form of theatrical make-up historically used by white people to portray black people in demeaning and reductive displays.
A person at the event asked the safety squad to address the costume by either asking him to leave the event or remove the black paint. The NWTCC safety squad went to a vote and determined the snake costume was acceptable.
“I am fully responsible for my choice. Evidently the reptile contact lenses, fangs, or stripes across my body were not clearly visible in the dim mood lighting of the Elks, and more could have been done to make my costume clear. In hindsight I should have gone with a different base colour,” the man wrote to the Yellowknifer, who asked not to be named.
“The offence I caused was unnecessary and entirely avoidable. I can’t change what happened. I can only promise to be more conscious of my colour choices in the future. Maybe a yellow snake next time.”
Facebook post after party
In a Facebook posting days after the event, one Yellowknife resident asked if the safety squad was upholding its principles. The poster has asked not to be named for fear of aggression and backlash from the community.
“‘Safety’ is subjective, and the responsibility to ensure safety is often given to those people who don’t need to be protected from anything,” stated the post. “The most dangerous spaces are the ones claiming to be safe but don’t have any accountability of measures in place.
In response, organizers from the collective published a public apology for failing to act on its anti-oppression mandates.
“The NWTCC would like to publicly acknowledge and extend a sincere apology to folks who were upset, offended, or put off by a poorly-executed costume that was present at our Alt Vday event,” the news release states, adding that the costume “should have been addressed immediately.”
Storm Larocque, 25, attends events put on by NWTCC and was disappointed the issue wasn’t dealt with earlier.
“The safety squad is in place for a reason, and one of those reasons is to prevent people showing up to events in black face,” Larocque told Yellowknifer. “If you’re going to claim to be an ally, be vocal when it counts.
“It’s frustrating as a person of colour, knowing that this group that’s supposed to make a safe space for people who are minorities, and knowing I can’t trust them to do what they’re saying.”
The costume is too similar to old minstrel cartoons, Larocque said.
“I need you to show me the differences because I’m not seeing the difference.”
Blackface traces as far back as medieval Europe, according to Yellowknifer research, but its North American roots lie in nineteenth century minstrel shows where performers painted their faces with black grease.
“We want people to express themselves but it can’t be at the expense of other people. We realize the trust has been broken and hurt. It’s on us to rebuild those spaces,” said NWTCC president Julaine Debogorski in an interview, adding that collective is committed to diversifying its safety squad and reviewing its policies and guidelines.
“When someone is at an event like this, people aren’t going to stick around to look for the intention or the context. They’re just going to be uncomfortable and leave,” said safety squad member Nancy MacNeill.
“Just because someone doesn’t go into a concept of a costume doesn’t mean people are going to interpret in a way that feels safe.”