Why Blackface is Wrong (Annual Installment)

It’s almost Halloween and that means it’s blackface season–that special time of year when white celebrities declare their love for black people by dressing as their favorite racist stereotype.  This year Megyn Kelly declared it open blackface season in a segment on her show that laments when she was a child–probably back when America was great again the first time–blackface costumes were okay.  And besides, what’s the harm?

By afternoon, Kelly had issued an apology citing a difficult political history to blackface that she must have momentarily forgotten in her dream dress as her favorite Supreme.  Blackface season closed.  But with a week left to Halloween and so many dope black people to stereotype, it will be hard for the masses of asses to resist the siren song of sweet, sweet blackface.  Twitter, and thankfully Padma, are here to remind the Megyn Kellys of the world that blackface is deeply offensive and finds its roots in America’s dark early days.

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In Kelly’s not-so-surprise apology, she says that we need to be more sensitive these days and that the wounds around blackface were “too deep”.  Her apology positions blackface as offensive to individuals because of past representations during minstrelsy.  She’s basically saying too soon for Jim Crow jokes with the snowflakes.  Blackface is deeply offensive–it always hurt my soul to show students the hurtful and racist origins of blackface–but feelings aren’t the only important reason to refuse to black it up for Halloween.

Blackface is skin blackening, and it is also a host of small symbolic elements that combined make up the projection of blackness through the white gaze.  Physical features like darkened skin, engorged or red lips, “nappy” hair, big white eyes, hypersexualized bodies, and big hands and feet.  Blackface also includes character traits like lazy, stupid, horny, animalistic, and backward, as well as status markers like class, education (always lack thereof) or citizenship.  Blackface characters are poor or pretending to be wealthy, criminal or threatening, here to steal your chickens, your girl, or your country.  Even today’s celebrity-wanna-look-alike blackface costumes often emphasize the stereotypical aspect of black stars.

In short, blackface isn’t a black person, it is a stereotype of blackness, a symbolic construction, a representation of blackness weaponized by white supremacy and used to perpetuate antiblackness in political, economic and social spheres. These negative portrayals of black people constructed out of white supremacist talking points are rhetorical weapons used to teach audiences what black people are like and what they deserve.  The ubiquity of blackface-based portrayals reinforces the normalcy of antiblackness and anti-black policy. The purpose of blackface is to stoke support for the oppression of blacks.

Early minstrel shows traveled the country reinforcing the idea that blacks were wild and terrible. Black characters were stupid and brutish, criminal and childlike.  These depictions encouraged audiences to support the system of slavery.  In the time before movies and TV, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America. Anyone with a penny to pay to see the show would know that enslaving those animal-like black people was what any good, Christian would do to protect our budding country.

Blackface imagery during Jim Crow encouraged white audiences to see blacks as the enemy, ape-y tricksters that had to be kept in line.  White audiences would see blackface all around them, from their darkie toothpaste to their little Sambo children’s books to early movies depicting barely-human blackface characters.  These characters were whistling at white women, stealing from the white man, and making America not-so-great. In a world of racist representations like this, lynching seems like a natural and logical response to protect whiteness.

A hundred years on from Birth of a Nation and negative stereotypes of black people have barely changed. Despite the New Black Renaissance flooding our timelines and televisions with Black magic, negative stereotyping of black people remains remarkably consistent: the Jezebel, the brute, the uppity negro, the magical negro.  Still today negative stereotypes of black people support dominant cultural narratives around what black people deserve.  And still today those stereotypes are cited as fact by racists: the alphabet soup of white women calling 911 on black people,  Colin Kaepernick haters, the thin blue-liners.

With very little substantive and reflective dialogue between black and white people, media portrayals of black people serve to teach white audiences who black people are and what they deserve.  White audiences too often see new versions of the same of old step and fetchit stereotypes with no black people to provide a real-world counter-narrative. A white person’s blackface costume may be the closest some people get to talking to a black person all year and the story that blackface costume will tell is a lie.

C’mon, killjoy, Megan asks, what if you just looooove Diana Ross?! If you didn’t know blackface was racist then I’m going to guess you don’t love black people as much as you claim you do.  Drunk white people dressed in Afro wigs are generally not talking about the recent spike in black women earning Ph.D.’s or the rise in black homeownership. Besides, your intentions do not change the meaning of culturally established stereotypes; you alone don’t get to decide to wash history clean and declare post-racial victory. When you put on the costume found in the toolbox of white supremacy, you are doing the work it takes to keep the narratives of antiblackness alive.

Blackface was born in the stories told by white people to other white people to make sense out of the barbaric economic system they relied on.  Like Hitler’s depiction of Jewish people and Trump’s depiction of Mexican people, Blackface’s stereotypical (mis)characterization is used to justify and encourage the violent and oppressive treatment of black people. Blackface is problematic because is it a cultural tool that encourages people to ACT: vote to support slavery, fight for the south, enforce Jim Crow, lynch, fight desegregation, vote against civil rights, hate Obama, support stop and frisk, support police brutality, gerrymander, call 911, regentrify, disregard BLM.  There are real consequences from the continued use of blackface representations.

So yes, its too soon for Jim Crow jokes, and no you can’t wear blackface now or ever. Ever. There is too much at stake for us to have to have the blackface argument anymore.  We can’t afford you ghouls out here this year trying to scare up votes based on fear. We won’t tolerate your costumeized cultural assassinations. We see under your mask. And hood.

Susan X Jane

Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker, and trainer. A former professor and youth worker, she now consults with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift. She thinks a lot about media and race…a lot, and writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way our identity shapes our experiences, ideas, and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

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