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Blackface incident at Miami preschool shows "desperate need" to educate against anti-Blackness

Studio Kids school in Miami’s Little River neighborhood is pictured on Friday, February 10, 2023. Some parents are upset that a preschool teacher in this school used blackface to teach a lesson about Black History Month.
José A. Iglesias
Miami Herald
Photos emerged this month of toddlers at a preschool in Little River with their faces painted in blackface. The incident has sparked outcry from parents and community members.

A recent blackface incident at a Miami area preschool underscores the persistence of anti-Blackness in South Florida’s Latin communities, according to a professor who studies Cuba and the African diaspora at Florida International University.

Earlier this month, photos emerged from a preschool in Little River where toddlers’ faces were painted black. According to the Miami Herald and others, the incident was apparently part of a Black History Month lesson.

“I saw the pictures and, I thought, what am I looking at?” said Andrea Queeley, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and African and African Diaspora Studies at FIU. “There's something about it that is immediately shocking, no matter how much I know and understand about the cultural context.”

The incident sparked outrage among parents and community members who say it’s part of a pattern of discrimination and mistreatment of Black and brown people in Miami.

Across the country, Latinos with darker skin tones are more likely to face discrimination and unfair treatment, including at the hands of other Latinos, according to the Pew Research Center.

The preschool where the incident happened did not respond to a request for comment from WLRN.

Queeley says that the use of blackface — and the disparaging ideas behind it — are seen differently in Latin American contexts. She spoke with WLRN’s Kate Payne about the origins of blackface and why it keeps happening in South Florida.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: Blackface has a long racist history in this country of playing on damaging stereotypes of Black people for the entertainment of white people. And in this case at the preschool, according to the reporting by the Miami Herald, when the school director was asked about why these children were painted in blackface, the response was that the director didn't see how it was racist. What was your reaction when you heard about this incident?

QUEELEY: This is incredibly insulting. And really very troubling. Obviously it’s troubling to have children in blackface, but that this is the way that they are actually celebrating or recognizing Black History Month?

In the [school] director’s... not necessarily her defense, but in explaining why it is that she didn't understand it would be racist, it's because there is that tradition of blackface in Latin America.

So what is racism, what's defined as racism in many Latin American contexts is … that legal segregation is what racism is. So that means that all of the association of Blackness with criminality, with ugliness, with immorality, obviously a lack of intelligence, with the proximity to animals, hypersexuality, all of that … that's not seen as being racist.

It's very common for people to say, ‘I can't be racist because my best friend and my neighbors and I have all of these social relationships with Black people’. The ideology of mestizaje, of raceless nationalism, all of that really figures very prominently in people's consciousness.

Nonetheless we still see these incidents keep happening in South Florida. Back in 2018, there was a play by a Cuban playwright staged in Little Havana that included a character in blackface. The show was later rewritten because of the public backlash. What is your sense for why this keeps happening?

People are resisting the imposition of a U.S. racial narrative. And so they're insisting, 'No, we do things differently and race is something very different in Latin American countries.'

But then you talk to Black Latin Americans — people have all different opinions and perspectives — but there are certainly a number of Black Latin Americans who actually do perceive this to be insulting and racist.

And then the attachment to the genre I think is wrapped up also in an attachment to this idea and this assumption of Black inferiority. So that's why you have mejorar la raza, right? The idea of adelante la raza. So you're always trying to lighten. You're always trying to get more European.

At the same time, we're seeing the state rejecting this AP course on African American Studies, threatening to defund diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at public universities, books are being banned that center African American figures …

Yeah it's obviously extremely disturbing. So the target is … yes, it's education and that's the battleground. But what actually I think is happening … it's a response to the protests of 2020, to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Back to the blackface thing, it gets to this fundamental question of Black humanity. The incident really illustrates, obviously the need — desperate need — for education and also the need for a nuanced understanding of anti-Blackness in the region — not just in the United States.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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