Dear White People…Blackface is Not an Appropriate Costume

Nor is it an appropriate theme for a party. Nor is it an appropriate tool to sell doughnuts. Heck, blackface just isn’t appropriate. At all. Ever. White people, please read this now before you further alienate people and make us think you are the racists you claim not to be.

I have been struggling with this topic for a few days now. Do I write a piece about this and draw attention to the idiocy or do I try to take the proverbial high road by just ignoring the blackface craze on my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed? Well, I broke down. I decided to write about it because I am a writer and it’s what I do. So there.

Let me start by saying, what in the purple-polka-dot-all-get-out-Mount-Sinai-over-the-moon-hell is wrong with people? Apparently two white folks thought it was a good time to paint one’s face black and go to Halloween parties as Trayvon Martin and murderer George Zimmerman. Julianne Hough went out as the character “Crazy Eyes” from Orange is the New Black. Meanwhile, “Africa” parties have become the new craze overseas. Not to mention there was a blackface doughnut ad in Thailand. Can we just stop with the blackface? Like, forever?

First of all,I feel the need to give a brief history of blackface so modern folks can understand exactly why it isn’t funny. Blackface, originating in the late nineteenth century, was a clever way for whites – bitter over the growing sociopolitical power of blacks in the Deep South – to get some gratification from caricaturing them in minstrel shows and street ads. These shows and graphics had characters including but not limited to “Jim Crow,” “Zip Coon,” “Mammy”, “Jezebel,” and “Pickaninny.” These stereotypical images of black people – slave and freed – were played by whites on stage. In images, they had exaggerated features making them appear monkey-like and nonhuman. The only way a black actor could play one of these characters onstage was if they did so in blackened skin. Nice right? Black people couldn’t play black people unless they caricatured the caricature of themselves.

Not only that, these caricatures were used by some in the South to perpetuate the institution of slavery. Even after slavery ended, free blacks were continuously threatened by whites who used these images as a means to intimidate them. And, blackfaced caricatures served as a means to legitimize institutional chattel bondage of blacks. This is the definition of oppression, and minstrelsy was the pinnacle of black exploitation and appropriation.

trayvon-blackface-costumeSecond, murder is not funny. By sheer definition it can’t be funny since it is defined by emotionally charged aggression between two or more people resulting in death. The case of Trayvon Martin is especially unfunny being that a 17-year-old lost his life without cause and without justice. It is a particularly sensitive case for black people who continue to feel as though their rights remain elusive. So, why in the hell would two white guys, Greg Cimeno and William Filene, think it intelligent to dress as slain Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the man who killed him?

Hoodie, blood stain, and gun shaped fingers make it clear that these two idiots intentionally intend to offend. Taken with a smile, this picture says, “Yeah, I know some random black thug kid got killed but this is a cool costume right?” Shenanigans like these are the exact types of behaviors which continue to alienate blacks and whites from one another. What does the black person at the party do when this guy walks in? How does one navigate that social situation? Donning the blackface shows a blatant level of disrespect for the social struggles of blacks. It insinuates that the black image is one of comedic pleasure and satire. Even a very serious event like the murder of an innocent teen seems to be fodder for the blackface minstrelsy.

julianne-hough-crazy-eyesThird, blackface does not show adoration for black people. No matter how well it is done or how tasteful one attempts to be, blackface evokes the feelings, sentiments, and memories attached to the minstrel scene. For black people, this is a varied experience. Some have a more intimate experience than others. But, regardless, blackface can never be divorced from its origin story. This lesson is for poor Julianne Hough. This gorgeous, young white woman decided to go out this past weekend donning bronzed skin and Bantu knots to dress like one of her favorite characters on television. Sadly, Crazy Eyes is black…so, yeah, that happened. Apparently, Julianne meant nothing by it. She thought it was just a normal Halloween costume. She later apologized.

Some have defended Hough while others have argued that she should have known better. Now, I believe that she honestly had no idea that her costume would offend people. I believe that because she seems like an average upper crest gal with no direct connection to diverse groups of people. In other words, she seems ignorant to me. So, finding out that she really is ignorant is not a complete surprise. Danielle Cadet of The Huffington Post outlines this facet of white privilege perfectly:

“The issue with hiding behind the ignorance safety net (i.e. “I didn’t know it was offensive,” or “I thought it was funny,” or “I wasn’t trying to be racist.”) is you take the responsibility off of yourself and put it on everyone else. It becomes everyone else’s (read: black people’s) responsibility to teach you why blackface is offensive– which is the ultimate problem with privilege. It somehow becomes the oppressed person’s responsibility to educate the offender turning the victimizer into the victim …”

aussie-blackfaceFourth, blackface should not be used to spice up birthday parties, galas, or other events meant for celebration. It seems like it wouldn’t be necessary to explain this but wearing “African” looking garb does not have to include brown skin. We get the point with just the head wraps and Kente cloth. The weirdest thing about this type of foolery is that folks act like there are no white people in Africa. The young lady who threw the party “is not racist” according to herself but just can’t understand why the costumes at her party would offend anyone. After all, folks dress up as Australians and Germans and no one gets mad, right?

What this girl didn’t seem to understand is that the people wearing the blackface don’t have to, themselves, be racist. Blackface is racist. It is like a built-in bonus to the caricatured nature of minstrelsy. Similarly, slave owners themselves didn’t have to be racist. They could have, on an individual basis, thought that blacks were simply swell. Yet, the institution of slavery was inherently racist. Get it?

blackface-doughnutFifth, blackface is not a marketing tool. Dunkin’ Donuts found this out the hard way when they were called “racist” for an advert featuring an Asian woman who becomes blackfaced after consuming their new “charcoal donut.” After initially defending the ad, they decided to apologize and suspend the insensitive campaign. This campaign was doomed at its inception, but the mere fact that it escaped the building is disturbing. Blackface doesn’t draw folks in. It is jarring, uncouth, and over-the-top. While this works for some things, it probably isn’t a proper recipe for marketing.

In conclusion, blackface is a universal no-no. People will not think you are clever. No one will think you are cool except for other stupid people in blackface. You don’t have to be a historian to know that it might be offensive to harken back to the days of American – or any other version of – slavery. And saying you are not racist does not erase the sentiments your ignorance drums up. Put simply, there were  innumerable atrocities and horrors inflicted on the blacks across the globe in the years preceding 1900 AD. They didn’t stop then, but it wasn’t until then that a majority of people around the world agreed that slavery was wrong. Blackface was a tool of that era. It was a hammer striking a nail to build up the house of institutional racism. Let’s just agree to leave it be.

Tomorrow is Halloween. You’ve been warned.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

20 Responses

  1. MyGunIsNotPrejudice says:

    Dear black people, stop being sensitive. Black people can make a movie about two black guys pretending to be white girls, but god forbid some goes to a Halloween party as a black person, people would start screaming black lives matter.

  2. Bostav says:

    I love the chocolate donut ad though.

  3. Satoshi Kamasutra says:

    SMDH that this type of transphobic bigotry against transrace individuals is still so prevalent.

  4. massconfusion149 says:

    I would love an explanation from Jenn on how blacks dressing up as whites is ok but whites dressing up as blacks is not! It goes both ways, honey!

  5. Truth rises anyway; in every way–every day. Imitation has always–in all ways–been the highest form of flattery. The beholder’s idea of beauty is like currency in the world of women. In this world of women, natural beauty has always required a majority of the 3Cs – curl/cut, color, and curves. Every woman who falsifies any of the latter requirements chooses to move away from a more natural appearance towards the unnatural look of glamour. For centuries, the pale-skinned woman has known that she will never be able to compete with flawless, rich-in-color, natural beauty and so has become dependent on a billion dollar glamour industry. Pale-skinned girls are in need of even more attention as black girls rock. Today’s sexist/racist standard of beauty has always–in all ways–demanded that [pale-skinned] women powder, bleach, perm, bend and curve in accordance with any man’s whims. Tradition, and current events, continU while spotlighting white women who cry “rape” or even go so far as to shoot themselves with their own police revolvers in order to get attention. The behavior of pale-skinned–black-faced–girls confirms their awareness of the usurpation of every One’s human rights simply for their entertainment. They are so deep in the belly of this beast of their own making that the demon’s ass or penis is the only remaining “white only” exit.

  6. The [deplorable] Blind Dead see what they want to see and hear what they already know.

  7. Shameka Franklin says:

    “Whiteface is not the same as Blackface because blackface was used as oppression. Even black actors could only act if they were in blackface. Whiteface will never be used as a form of supremacy or oppression it will never be that way. It doesn’t go both ways honey. You wouldn’t tell someone in Africa to stop crying about aids because we have it in the US as well or tell a woman to stop talking about being raped because it happens to men too. It’s making the victimizeright the victim and that wouldn’t be right now would it?

  8. Underground, Overground says:

    Hiya, I know this was a while ago, yet here we are- still relevant! You would think people would get it! My big problem isn’t with black face- it’s kinda with the Hispanic equivalent of it. Our local paper is making a big feature of a local Mexican themed restaurant who’s is using Día de Meurtos as an opportunity to create business, by offering face painting and cartoonish parading to a bunch of white people with no connection with Mexico and Central America. I think it’s not appropriate, and quite disrespectful of cultural practices. Here’s a link..

  9. thomase says:

    Dressing as “blackface” is not the same as dressing as a black character. Like the Wayons brothers in white chicks. Using makeup to change skin color should either be ok or not.
    This is not acceptable =*lcJAqbd7xr0SHlor.jpg
    This is acceptable

    Crazy eyes is a beloved character, where blackface is being racist and demeaning. White chicks is was hilarious but it would be considered unacceptable if the roles were reversed. To be free of racism, both sides must be able to serve comedy in the same way, with each other not at each other.

  10. thomase says:

    But using black makeup is not always blackface.
    This is blackface*lcJAqbd7xr0SHlor.jpg

    This is dressing up as a beloved charecotor

    Blackface uses specific features around the mouth and uses racial overtones.
    Dressing up as crazy eyes is no different from the wayan bros
    Most of us are a new generation and had nothing to do with that old crap, which is why most of us voted for Bernie. But both sides have to be equal, im not paying for something someone elses great granddad did. I am accountable for my own life.

  11. Shameka Franklin says:

    When people dress up as a character the point is in dressing that way. You don’t have to paint your face we get the point. There is a difference whether you choose to see it or not.No one is holding you accountable but don’t act like it’s not a problem.

  12. thomase says:

    then why do you think the wayan brothers did it? I agree you dont have to. But, on that same note i dont think someone who does it in a manner that is not blackface(like a clown look) is racist in doin so. Nick Cannon Snoop Dog, Chris Rock to name a few. It is the context of what they are doing. If it is not ok for someone to dress up as crazy eyes with makeup, then the same would apply to all other races.

  13. thomase says:

    Also, no one can hold me accountable, i have not done anything negative to anyone, and painting ones face a different color is not a problem. However, i believe saying it is a problem for one race and not the other, does create a problem because that insinuates one race is greater than the other or deserves more rights, when in fact equal should mean equal. Lastly, we need a new progressive party to bring this country together, not apart.

  14. Shameka Franklin says:

    Just know that there is no such thing as reverse racism. Blackface is blackface whether it’s a character or not. You can’t defend something that is wrong. Before we try to bring a country together we need to first talk about the problems. If we have to keep defending the problem and explaining why they are problems then that that creates a whole different issue. Just don’t do blackface it’s not cool. There is no difference between one or the other. You may not know the history behind it and that’s ok but there is no justification.

  15. thomase says:

    “Just know that there is no such thing as reverse racism”. I understand the history of blackface, but having black paint on your face is not blackface any more than a man using makeup for a tv show a drag queen, it is about context. If he puts makeup on like a woman then it is drag, if it is for highlights it is that. The same with costumes. If you are dressing up in blackface, then it is wrong and insensitive. However, if you are dressing up as a black character, white character or Jaguar it is just that. Our generation had no more to do with the terrible things that went on back then any more than current Germans had to do with the Holocaust.
    I want to expand on my views. When BLM came out i was 100% for it, until a few selected the demands. Including reparations and free college for only black people. Let me mention my family is multiracial or biracial some refer to it and I am also gay, so persecution on two levels for me . I am for equal opportunity and diversification. But in order to attain equality we must give all the children free education. I believe we in this country should help all people in poverty achieve a decent quality of life. I know that the black community has been targeted by the police for decades, all this has to be fixed. But the war on drugs and criminal reform are issues we need to focus on, not this.

  16. Y-lee Green says:

    Yes it’s one sided, just as its tasteless to dress as a Nazi or a holocaust victim. White’s just shouldn’t it. Let’s not act like this isn’t a White America. Racial segregation is still exists and to think that taking steps backwards to try to make blackface okay again just adds to evidence that sore whites just don’t give a fudge and are going to do what they want to do.

  17. Lindi Mashinini says:

    So… in your opinion… and it IS an OPINION… blackface is wrong because…. feelings?

    What does 1930’s prejudiced have to do with modern age? if you gotta dig up such old ass material to support your argument then maybe your view point is stale. What black person in todays day and age gets oppressed or set back socio-economically by racist tweets and blackface selfies?? or by white people wearing lame themed costumes??

    As a black person i really need to know, Why do things like these get under the skins of black people, as a black person why should i care what Lucy May or Tom Waters wears for Halloween? (pun unintended)

  18. Julio Cesar Varella Hernandez says:

    What a huge pile of shit.

  19. PAX says:

    sorry of my language,I skip english lessons at school.
    this is not racism. Greater racism would have been if a white man dressed up in a dark-skinned character did not dress up his white skin-this would be more racism. Yes,I`m understand,It`s don`t correctly,but this realy crazy. Okay,I`m just… I`m fine.

  20. Jorge Mcfan says:

    With everything which seems to be developing within this specific subject matter, all your viewpoints happen to be very radical. Even so, I appologize, but I do not subscribe to your whole strategy, all be it refreshing none the less. It appears to me that your commentary are generally not completely rationalized and in simple fact you are your self not entirely confident of the point. In any event I did appreciate reading it.

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