Whelp, it’s happened again. And lately it seems to be happening all the time. It’s nothing though; just that a few people still think it’s cool to wear blackface.
First it was the “black out” at the Arizona State football game in Tempe, where students took the term literally and used black shoe polish on themselves to their heart’s content (see right). Then there was the makeup artist in Germany who used dark makeup to cosplay one of her favorite characters from the TV show “The Walking Dead.” Can’t forget about Warner Brothers, who were too lazy to find a black stunt woman and instead opted to put dark makeup on a Caucasian woman for the new show “Gotham.” And finally, there is the surge of white men, women and children darkening their skin and dressing up as Ray and Janay Rice for Halloween, which is awful for so many different reasons — only one of which is that they are doing it in blackface.
I find it pretty difficult to be outraged at the people who are doing this, because they just seem to be ill informed. The German makeup artist, for instance, was probably totally unaware of the history of blackface. Taken in context, she didn’t use the dark makeup to stereotype or disparage blacks. She did it to pay tribute to a favorite character of hers. I can’t say the same thing for the people dressing up like Ray and Janay Rice, but I’m hoping it’s ignorance rather than racism that encouraged them to do what they did.
However, what I was surprised and incredibly outraged by was the reaction of various people responding to these instances of blackface. People love to trivialize the history behind blackface and diagnose the outrage over it as another instance of an overly politically-correct society. They say things like “I’m tired of living in a sensitive P.C. society,” or “This is America, I can dress in black face if I want. What’s the big deal?!”
What these blackface skeptics need to know is that donning blackface has been and will continue to be a very big deal. I don’t think people remember why this is true — an all-too common phenomenon called “forgetting high school history” — so here’s a reminder:
Minstrel shows, where blackface originated, were the first prominent form of American Popular culture. These minstrel shows, if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing one, are both embarrassing and terrifying. Watching them literally scares me because these shows demonstrate how desensitized people became to slavery and other injustices done to blacks. They featured white people dressed up like black people and playing out scenes that depicted black people doing all of the things white people were afraid of: being overly sexual, being violent, and being stupid. Minstrel shows rendered the black existence as nothing but a joke. They were propaganda, used to stoke the fears of whites in the early-to-mid-19th century by showcasing the dangers of a free black man and justifying the lynchings, beatings and murders that took place contemporaneously.
The reality is that minstrel shows leave a legacy that’s deeply embedded in American culture in ways people would prefer to forget. Minstrel shows were favorites among prominent 19th century figures like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. Songs like “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “The Camptown Races” were first used in minstrel shows. Terms like Jim Crow, Mammy, Pickaninnie and Coon all originated from minstrel show characters, with those last three transformed into racial slurs against blacks. The running joke about pickaninnies, which were little negro children, was that they were disposable and could be killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision. Even your childhood isn’t safe from the minstrel show. Remember playing “Eeny Meeny, Miny, Moe” or singing “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” You can thank minstrel shows for those, too.
One common retort that I’ve heard regarding this issue is, “Well what about White Chicks, the 2004 classic from the Wayans brothers?” Well I hate to break it to you guys, but these portrayals have not been used to cast white people in an unfavorable light like black face has — even if the movie wasn’t particularly tasteful. It’s a false equivalency argument for the simple fact that our nation’s history doesn’t support it at all. There isn’t a history of the larger black society looking at this and thinking that it justifies the subjugation of the white race. Besides, simply shouting “What about White Chicks?!” is not a justification or excuse for blackface. Two wrongs, as they say, don’t make a right.
Another retort that is disgustingly common is, “Well, I have a black friend, and they weren’t offended.” Well, just because that one black dude you work with wasn’t offended by something — or told you he wasn’t offended by something — doesn’t mean that something isn’t offensive. He’s not the only person living in this country. You can’t just ignorantly bulldoze over whole cultures and histories just because you think people are being too sensitive. Because they’re not being too sensitive — you’re being too ignorant.
Is this country truly a “melting pot” if we can’t even respect the cultures that live among us? It smacks of a sense of superiority that people think their opinions of how racially sensitive they should be always trump the opinions of others — especially when the group protesting has entire history books to back up their feelings. Even though a lot has changed since minstrel shows and the Jim Crow era that spawned from them, maybe there’s still a lot more work to be done regarding racial views and sentiments in this country.