I’d just like to point out a few things:
While I am persuadable as to the notion of an English folk tradition of face blacking as disguise (as opposed to minstrelesque blackface: http://black-face.com/), I am, however, minded of several facts which contradict the vociferous claims of those decrying that the Bacup Coconutters’ show could possibly be deemed in any way racist.
1) despite repeated claims that the Coconutters have been doing this for 150 years (as if this somehow completely destroys any possibility that the show could be deemed racist by virtue of how ‘traditional’ it is), their badge says that they celebrated their centenary in 2003, having been originally formed in 1903 (https://twitter.com/marcusine17/status/458521459632406528). This does, of course, mean they’ve now been at it for *111 years…not 150 years…
*(On their website (http://www.coconutters.co.uk/history.htm) they do however say they are ‘descended’ from another troupe called the Tunstead Mill Troupe, ‘who celebrated their half century in 1907′.)
2) you’ll notice, on looking at the Coconutters’ badge (https://twitter.com/marcusine17/status/458521459632406528), that they’ve chosen as their logo, a cartoon image which doesn’t really conjure up ‘authentic’ ‘traditional’, ‘English’. Actually it looks like a racist caricature and wouldn’t be out of place on a piece of literature by a far right racist organisation like the BNP or EDL. It is simply untenable that the Coconutters are unaware of the message this gives out nor the need to rectify this.
3) the name ‘Coconutters’ belies the fact this is some harmless ancient and decidedly not racist ‘traditional English’ pursuit. Firstly because coconuts are not indigenous to the UK (and therefore cannot add weight to the idea of ‘traditional’) and secondly because the word ‘coconut’ has a long history as a term of abuse towards Black people, given that the coconut IS indigenous to tropical and sub-tropical areas around the world.
4) to my eyes, the costume that the Coconutters wear doesn’t look traditionally English at all; instead looking much closer to many northern European national costumes (of course I may be wrong about this and am open to more informed opinion).
5) the Coconutters’ own website (http://www.coconutters.co.uk/history.htm) gives a broad set of possible theories as to the history of their tradition but is understandably vague about its exact origins; ’emphasis must be placed on the fact that everything we’ve said is in no way authoritive and is open to debate’.
6) Many Black people will also be perturbed by the Coconutters’ use of the word ‘exotic’ on their history page to describe themselves (a word which has traditionally been used to describe people and things from the far-flung corners of the historic British Empire…this therefore carries historic racist overtones for many).
7) despite claims on the part of supporters that the Coconutters’ show must be viewed differently from the minstrel tradition of blackface (http://black-face.com/) due to ‘a separate tradition’, as I understand it there WAS an historic overlap between the two traditions as detailed in this generally excellent work by Patricia Bater: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/4181/1/MPhil_upload.pdf
To Sum Up
It’s important to realise that just because someone is not ‘maliciously intending’ to be racist, doesn’t mean that their actions therefore cannot BE racist (ie that it’s possible for people to be racist without meaning to be). It’s equally important to realise that someone does not have to be A racist in order to do something which IS racist.
(There is currently much confusion about this in the arguments of many vocal supporters’ of the Bacup Coconutters’ show who, ironically, appear to be completely unfamiliar with conversations about the nature of racism.)
To sum up, despite this show having been performed throughout the living memory of local inhabitants, it simply cannot be possible that it in 2014 it has escaped their notice as to how racist it could appear to be. On those grounds alone, the Coconutters and Bacup should take it upon themselves to deal with the issue head on and make their case if they genuinely believe it isn’t and modify it if they understand that it is.
‘Tradition’ is no excuse for racism and education is needed to enlighten others of the ‘real history’, should that in fact be the case, as purported by Coconutters supporters. Either way the Coconutters have some work to do.