A Russian TV station which is said to be pro-Kremlin, was criticized over the weekend after an actress in a segment on one of its shows donned blackface to mimic former US president Barack Obama in a skit.
According to The Washington Post, the racist and controversial skit appeared on NTV’s satirical program titled Mezhdunarodnaya Pilorama (International Sawmill). In a snippet of the skit that has been circulating on social media, the show’s host, Tigran Keosayan, is seen having a conversation with a woman wearing blackface and portraying Obama.
“We now go live to the dark side of America’s history, Barack Obama,” Keosayan says, per translation from The Post.
“Black lives matter!” the actress yells before Keosayan cuts in and says: “Can you please stop shouting? We don’t have racism. Maximum you could be taken for a gypsy.”
During their conversation, the host also reportedly asks the actress if she “considers this book” – which is in reference to Obama’s recently released A Promised Land memoir – an achievement, to which she replies and says: “Of course.”
The host then asks if it’s “because none of your relatives have written books?” She answers saying: “Because none of my relatives that came before me could write.” Keosayan also later tells her she “should have been a rap musician, not the president.”
The skit was criticized by some Russians on Twitter, including Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny. “The author and screenwriter of the program is Margarita Simonyan [Keosayan’s wife],” Navalny, who was taken to Germany after he was poisoned with a nerve agent in August, wrote. He added that the couple earn around $65,000 for an episode of the show.
“And I remind you that Keosayan sent his daughter to study in New York,” he said. Another Russian also labeled the skit as “garbage,” The Moscow Times reported.
Following the backlash, Simonyan moved to defend the controversial skit and her husband, saying: “As someone who is part of an ethnic minority in Russia, Tigran regularly makes fun, on the air, of his large ‘ethnic’ nose and his belonging to a ‘black’ community.” The Washington Post reports Simonyan’s comments were in reference to an insulting term used against Armenians and other people by some Russians. The couple are of Armenian heritage.
This isn’t the first time Obama has been subjected to racial discrimination the country. In 2015, many participants in a Moscow Red Bull Flugtag contest were spotted wearing blackface and chasing a banana, with one of them wearing a mask with the face of the former US president.
Blackface grew out of Minstrel shows starting in the 1830s. The act involved white actors darkening their face with shoe polish or greasepaint, painting exaggerated red lips with makeup, and acting out stereotypically dumb, foolish, or dangerous Black characters – that is the “happy darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. The larger purpose of these shows was to entertain white slave owners, who were humored by acts mocking slaves and free Blacks during the 19th century.