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AGM Face Paint Motion – a letter from your Committee

Face Paint Motion (Motion 6)

A Motion has been proposed for debate at the AGM 2020 which says:

“From 1st January 2021 no member team, participants in a team, or individual member shall use any solid full face coloured makeup which could be taken by a reasonable observer as likely to imitate or parody a skin colour different from their own.”

If passed, it asks all member teams to review their policy on use of makeup to ensure it meets the published Face Paint Guidance. The Committee will also be instructed to refuse membership (from January 2021) to any team that chooses not to comply.  Teams are perfectly entitled to make this choice and can continue to perform as they have always done, but will not be (re-)admitted to membership of The Morris Federation.

Letter from your Committee

The vast majority of us don’t wear full face black makeup, however the issue of full face black makeup affects the whole community.

Should we vote on the face paint motion (Motion 6)?

YES.  In any membership organisation, it is the right of the minority to be heard and the right of the majority to decide.  Every member has a right to influence Federation policy.  Debate and voting at the AGM is the proper way to do this.

Why is the Committee not neutral on the issue of ‘blacking-up’?

Because to remain neutral is to be content with the status quo. Both as individuals and as a body we have come to feel that now is the right time to act.  Four (of the six) officers have danced with Molly or Border teams.  Some have blacked-up in the past.  We understand the power of makeup and disguise and we are aware of their traditional use.  We have enjoyed the performances and shared the excitement of innovative teams.  But we (and many of these same teams) now feel that this power can be achieved in different ways and that the tradition is not as clear cut as once we might have thought.  The impact of minstrelsy upon local customs in the 19th Century is widely noted.

We do not think teams that black up are being racist. But unlike almost everything else to do with kit, music or dancing, the wearing of full face black makeup (in particular) is not just a matter for the team concerned.  The practice has been the subject of controversy for many years.  There are strong opinions held on both sides of the argument.  Raising this issue is not about dictating details that are of concern only to the team itself.

We first signalled our formal disquiet in 2016 when we urged all teams to give serious consideration to the impact of ‘blacking up’ on both our audiences and the public perception of Morris overall.  The ‘black lives matter’ events of 2020 have brought the issue to the fore once more.  This Committee is actively choosing to “stand in the gap”, which means that we are standing up for other people and not turning a blind eye because it doesn’t affect us directly.

Can’t we just ignore the current media attention?

We have spent the last six months listening to public figures, celebrities, entertainers – even politicians – from around the world publicly apologising for, and distancing themselves from, historic episodes of blacking up, a practice which until relatively recently was regarded as mainstream entertainment.

We may think of our hobby as rather endearing to members of the public, however this is at odds to how we may be perceived by a public looking for change. We would come under constant and rather hostile scrutiny if anyone were to make a claim under the Equality Act 2010.

The Committee have had first-hand experience of how draining and exhausting dealing with complex legal situations can be in relation to our hobby, as opposed to our jobs, and we are keen to encourage teams not to put themselves through unnecessary stress and anxiety that can be easily avoided.

What might happen if the motion is defeated?

If this motion was to be defeated, how would that look to non-Morris dancers?  It’s not enough to know we’re not racist – we have to be anti-racist for it to count. Otherwise it’s merely apathy.

Can’t teams just talk to the audience?

We’d be very happy if that was all that was needed, but you can’t talk to people who don’t stay to talk.  As one team said: “When we go out dancing … we take over the whole space, physically and financially.  We pretty much take over a pub so it’d be difficult for someone objecting to the use of full-face blacking up to be heard.  And landlords wouldn’t want to interfere in that situation.  None of us honestly wants to upset passers by, and that’s what we’re risking doing.”

Isn’t it The Morris Federation’s job to educate the public?

What form would this education take?  We can’t afford mass advertising.  We are neither funded nor staffed to deliver on any form of public or political education programme. Even with the best will in the world, we simply can’t reach every person who might come into contact with a team that blacks up.

Likewise, we have been trying to get Morris dancing into schools – in competition with many other extra-curricular topics – for years without much success.  Schools practitioners say that they would either simply not be allowed to introduce, or would not feel comfortable introducing, black face-paint to schools.

The Committee is not persuaded that a message that it’s “just traditional disguise” will be either accurate or effective.  The purpose of the “education” would presumably be to provide something that a team could rely on (in part) as a defence against an accusation of harassment under the Equality Act.  Lawyers (and ‘historians’ of the Morris) that we have consulted are confident that this would be demolished in short order by a competent barrister should this ever come to court.

Which teams are affected?

This isn’t about specific teams, though obviously only certain teams would be affected.  The argument is whether the practice of blacking-up is still acceptable in principle.  If it is not, the principle must apply to all our members.

Where can I find more information?

You can find a lot more information on our website. There is a further face paint FAQ, including guidance on our definition of “blacking-up” and discussions on the impact of blacking up and its historical roots.

Details of the motions to be debated are in the AGM Pack.

If you have questions concerning anything to do with face paint or the AGM, you can email us at and we will get back to you within 48 hours.

From the Committee of The Morris Federation, 8th September 2020

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