In Chile, the American Idol-like television show “Mi Nombre Es” premiered this October, featuring Las Vegas style performers imitating famous vocalists from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga. The show entertains until it crosses comfort zones, mirroring American minstrel shows with contestants pretending to be Barry White and Ray Charles in full blackface.
Contestants not only attempt to imitate the vocal capabilities of their idols, but also dress and act as they might.

The show features children and adult impersonators; Justin Bieber is imitated by a young girl singing “Baby” in all out Bieber attire, an Eddie Vedder imitator is in boots and shorts as though he were a youth in Seattle during the early 90’s.

When the Ray Charles contestant walks on stage, his light skin is caked in black makeup. He wears dark black sunglasses and teeters from side to side with a grin on his face, exposing his teeth completely like Ray Charles. He praises the musician before he himself begins to sing “Georgia On My Mind.”

Yet his impression comes off as much more of a mockery than commemoration to the late idol. That is when a large cultural and demographic divide, between the U.S. and Chile, comes into play.

The Ray Charles video on Youtube has received over 90,000 views thus far, with 242 people commenting (mostly in Spanish). Not until 21 full pages of comments had been written and submitted did someone point out that the contestant was in blackface. It was the first comment written in English, presumably from someone in the U.S.

“This guy is good. Love the makeup. In [the United States of] America, they would call him racist for doing something like this,” read the unsurprising comment from a member of the not so “post racial” society America encompasses today, but at least he recognized that the performance was discomforting.

In America a contestant in blackface would never happen today precisely because they would be called racist, and for good reason.

Blackface was a prominent performance in American theater for over a hundred years from around 1830 on. It fell from prominence during the mid 20th century when the master narrative of race took central stage, but could still be found on American primetime TV as late as 1981.

It is notorious, and racist, in America for its contribution to a system of disadvantage and for its perpetuation of demeaning stereotypes of black people, with characters in blackface best described as acting like “buffoons.”

So from an American lens, an imitation of Ray Charles with a performer in blackface carries with it a load of historical baggage that cannot be easily abandoned.

However, in Chile, where Afro-Chileans make up less than one percent of the population, the historical context of black life in the United States gets left behind.

Many of the Chilean commentators on Youtube praised the imitator, repeatedly calling his performance excellent without any mention of the black makeup covering his face and hands.

One visitor to the Youtube site responded to the comment quoted above by saying, “here [in Chile] we call it tribute.”

Those whose ancestors labored in Chile towards the end of the slave trade and still face racial issues in the country today will most likely disagree.