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Community / ‘Ignorance does not make this acceptable’ – pressure grows on blackface to be banned in Up Helly Aa squads

Guizers during the procession at Scalloway Fire Festival in 2020.

FRESH calls have been made for the practice of ‘blackface’ to be banned from Up Helly Aa squads – with the issue described as a “long overdue conversation for Shetland”.

Ellie Ratter, from Brae, has written to all Up Helly Aa committees in Shetland calling for ‘blacking up’ to be eradicated from any of the isles’ fire festivals.

It comes after a new group called Shetland Staands Wi Black Lives Matter was set up to create a “collective voice that can address and hopefully change the underlying racism that exists here”.

The group has organised a walking event on Saturday (13 June), while the following weekend a separate peaceful protest organised by different folk is set to be held in Lerwick.

Joy Duncan, speaking on behalf of Shetland Staands Wi Black Lives Matter, said “most of the underlying racism in Shetland is unintended”, with a perception that an ignorance around cultural history may be at play.

The practice of blackface – donning make-up or masks – has often been seen as a physical embodiment of this, and has sometimes been used in some Up Helly Aa squads or in people’s fancy dress.

Blackface dates back to the minstrel shows of the 1800s where white performers would blacken their faces to caricature black people.

The renewed focus on race issues following the death of George Floyd in the US at the end of May has seen some Shetland people take to social media to admit they were wrong for using blackface in costumes when they were younger, having changed their views after learning more about the history.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said on Monday that “seeing blacked-up faces at some local events needs to be a thing of the past”.

“Part of being an ally is looking at yourself and your community and recognising where you can do better,” she said. “Shetland, just like everywhere else, can do better.”

Ratter decided to write to the Up Helly Aa committees asking them to ban “blackface and other racial discriminating face coverings” after seeing a social media post containing photos of past Lerwick Up Helly Aa squads.

While the use of blackface appears to be less common now than it may have been, some images shared were from within the last few years.

Ratter said she did not fully know the “scale that it was going on”.

“A lot of squads will not know where blackface originated from and simply want to portray a character,” she wrote in her letter.

“I think it’s important to educate people on where this trend originated and why it is still harmful to people of colour today.”

Ratter said on Tuesday morning that so far she has had responses from the Bressay and Cullivoe Up Helly Aa committees – “they’ve both said that it won’t be tolerated”. Delting Up Helly Aa confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that it had also decided to ban blackface.

She added that the Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee said the letter would be discussed at its next meeting.

Roseanne Watt, a writer from Shetland currently living in Edinburgh, said that it is a “long overdue conversation” for the isles.

She believes that while “no malice” has been intended by Up Helly Aa acts using blackface, “ignorance does not make this practice acceptable by any means”.

Watt said it remains “hugely upsetting and uncomfortable for folk from Shetland’s BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] communities to witness the use of blackface in a major community event such as Up Helly Aa”.

“It is important to remember that blackface was used in the context of skits and dances in order to humiliate and mock black people,” she added.

“By placing blackface in the lichtsome context of your UHA skit you are not just trivialising that history, you are doing so by the very means in which it was first enacted.”

Watt has also written an email template designed to be sent to Wishart asking her to call on Up Helly Aa committees to ban the use of blackface in squad acts.

It also asks Wishart, who is the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, to exert pressure on the Scottish Government for education reform in the teaching of black history.