An online petition has condemned white people ‘blacking up’ as Zulu warriors on Bonfire Night in Lewes.
The website Bonfire Against Racism calls on members of Borough Bonfire Society to stop the practice, which is part of its First Pioneer costume.
The society has responded by fiercely denying that it is racist.
The petition site said: “We are a group of Lewes residents who love Bonfire, but needed to speak out about the racist practice of ‘blacking up’.
“We accept that members of Borough Bonfire Society were not deliberately racist in the first instance, but continuing to black their faces once they were made aware of the offence caused is a racist act.
“Bonfire is a wonderful annual event and makes Lewes unique. However, the practice of ‘blacking up’ is causing black and minority ethnic residents to feel unsafe, particularly as Lewes and East Sussex are not racially diverse areas and most BME residents have experienced racism here.”
A spokeswoman for Bonfire Against Racism said: “Painting a face poster-paint black is very much a caricature. It’s important to show our children perpetuating racial stereotypes is nothing to do with Bonfire Night.
“We are saying keep the costumes but stop painting faces black.
“It’s that whole ‘We won’t be druv’ mentality. But things can change.”
The Bonfire Against Racisim site says: “Lewes Bonfire is a spectacular event with many positive qualities. It brings our community together for a unique celebration and reflects the huge devotion of many bonfire society members that work towards it all year-round.
“However, the decision of a small fraction of participants to embody caricatured, negative stereotypes of black Africans is racist and runs counter to the overall spirit of the event. Their action serves only to increase tension and division within our diverse community.”
It urges people to sign the 38 Degrees petition requesting “that Borough Bonfire Society acknowledges the adverse effects that ‘blackface’ has on members of the Lewes community, however unintended they might be, and cease this behaviour immediately”.
Borough’s Chairman Jason Winter said the views expressed on the site were “ignorant and arrogant” and that the Zulus had been part of the Bonfire tradition for decades.
“Just how far do you take ‘political correctness’?” he asked.
Mr Winter pointed out that at this year’s celebrations on November 4 Borough would be joined by ‘Zulu Tradition’, a group of Zulu dancers from KwaZulu Natal, who will be marching with society members on the night. “They certainly don’t find what we do offensive,” said Mr Winter.