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White woman’s use of Mardi Gras krewe blackface stirs debate

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POSTED March 13, 2017 9:27 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — There’s blackface -- the racist, minstrel-show practice of whites imitating blacks.
And there’s blackface -- black Mardi Gras revelers donning outlandish garb to poke fun at that racism.
And then there’s blackface -- modern-day whites wearing paint and accompanying New Orleans’ black Zulu krewe.
But as New Orleanian Ann Tuennerman found out last month, that third blackface can still offend people in a big way.
It wasn’t just the picture on her Facebook page showing her with painted face and Zulu Krewe regalia — an image captured by her husband, Paul Tuennerman, as he made a video recording at the Zulu den. There was also the accompanying comment: “As he said, ‘Throw a little blackface on and you lose all your Media Skills.’ He did his best as the interviewer.”
Criticism soon erupted on Facebook. Some were upset at the comment — deeming it racially offensive — but not so much at the blackface get-up. Others were upset at both.
“It is 2017,” said one critical post. “No reason for adults or anyone to still be putting on blackface, even if tradition.”
The Tuennermans, both white, are founders of Tales of the Cocktail, an annual event that draws thousands in the alcoholic beverage industry to New Orleans every year.
Both Tuennermans immediately accepted responsibility, acknowledged the racial insensitivity, and the pain it caused and tried to make amends.
In an online apology last week, Paul Tuennerman announced his resignation from Tales of the Cocktail. He said his comments had been meant to tease his “camera-shy wife” but that he realized in retrospect they were “hurtful and just plain dumb.”
Ann Tuennerman has offered online apologies and took part in a live Facebook discussion on race with Ashtin Berry, a local African-American bartender who objected to her post.
“To be honest, intentions are not relevant here. It’s the impact that counts, especially for a leader,” Tuennerman said Thursday in emailed answers to questions from The Associated Press. “Moreover, it was my decision to post the photo and comment and I bear the full responsibility.”
Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club lore holds that the club’s traditions go back to around 1909 and a group of black laborers known as The Tramps. Tramps members also are believed to have been part of one of the black community’s Benevolent Aid Societies, formed to provide financial help for members who became ill.
Group members are believed to have seen a vaudeville-era musical comedy show that included a skit about an African king. They adopted the Zulu name and costume, leading to incorporation of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club in 1916.
Mardi Gras historians say the organization’s parades on the back streets of New Orleans developed into a kind of satirical nose-thumbing at white, high society Mardi Gras “krewes,” when New Orleans and its celebrations were strictly segregated and a black organization would never have been allowed on a main parade route.
Zulu membership declined during the 1960s civil rights struggles, according to a history on the club’s website. “Dressing in a grass skirt and donning a black face were seen as being demeaning,” it said.
But the club has bounced back. A seat on a float is coveted — Tuennerman said she paid $1,400 in dues for the privilege.
And the blackface, grass-skirt tradition continues.
“You have a lot of Zulu members who even today don’t think it’s offensive at all because they’ve adopted it as being their own,” says Christopher Williams, 38, a lifelong New Orleanian and former Zulu member.
Williams said in an interview that he doesn’t find the Zulu blackface tradition offensive. Still, he wonders aloud whether Zulu should continue it. If members do, he said, they need a full-throated explanation as to why it survives.
“The blackface needs to be discussed,” he said. “If she’s the vehicle of having them do that, I think that a negative situation has turned into a positive situation both for the community and Zulu itself.”
So far, the club hasn’t addressed the Tuennerman controversy. Questions were referred to Danatus King, a former New Orleans NAACP president and the attorney for the club. He dismissed the flap as a matter between the Tuennermans. “Zulu has no response to that domestic matter,” he said.
Ann Tuennerman, meanwhile, has taken part in a great deal of online soul-searching, including the Facebook discussion with Berry.
Does she regret donning Zulu garb — a club requirement for riders of all races?
“I do not, as it was respectful to the organization to wear their traditional costume when riding in their parade,” she said.

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