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Images of the Hawera Mt View Lions Club's float from yesterday's event show six people dressed as black minstrels, surrounded by black and white balloons.
The float was playing the song Black and White by Michael Jackson. In a video of the event, the crowd goes silent as it goes past.
"People were saying 'is this really what I think it is'," Hawera resident Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said.
"Those who knew better were absolutely shocked. But there was just this total ignorance of the organisers that this would be offensive."
"That worries me in 2018. That we're back in the '60s with some of the cultural attitudes," she said.
Dozens of people - including former New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd - posted on Facebook saying the dress-up was offensive.
His post attracted more than 100 comments, including many accusing the club of racism.
"How is parading around with a Hawera Mt View Lions banner attached to a trailer filled with Jim Crow characters even allowed?," Nganeko Eriwata wrote.
"Educate yourself [about] the definition of Jim Crow law and how inhumane American people treated African people who were not white, not privileged, not of status and were hung on trees for entertainment. So Tell me Hawera, do we allow this mockery to continue?"
The club responded to the post saying it was not meant to be derogatory.
"What if these persons had been dressed up representing Maori wahine and warriors. Would that have been offensive too?
"This group of ladies work very hard for you the community and support all the diverse cultures within it. Let's not be too precious or PC. Next parade let's see you participate and join in the celebration ..."
It later posted an apology, then deleted its Facebook page entirely.
"Hawera Mt View Lions do sincerely apologise for the impression we made at the parade last night. We didn't set out to upset the community in the way it has."
When contacted by the Herald, the club refused to comment.
Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, kaiarataki of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Ruanu, says she was in a state of "absolute shock and disgust" when she saw the image of the float and will be making an official compaint about it.
The use of blackface is offensive, says Debbie, because it represents an era when white people used mass racism to ridicule and demean coloured people.
"Moreover, this is a community organisation - Lions clubs are respected and this is the message they're happy to give - all their good work does not negate this racism.
"The Hawera Mt View Lions Club needs to apologise for their actions she says, as well as acknowledge the issue and enter into discussions on how to remedy it.
Blackface originated during the 19th century, when actors in minstrel shows would use black grease paint to represent a caricature of a black person.
Usually, the representations were cartoonish and dehumanising, reinforcing the idea that black people were inferior.
It is also inextricably linked to systematic social and political repression, and deemed racially insensitive by the African American community.