Why is blackface still a thing?

Every year on Halloween, I’m reminded of the enduring gulf between right-minded individuals and their asshat counterparts, when I see photos of people donning blackface.

Some will argue that Halloween is a time for fantasy – a day when all the rules of propriety are gleefully tossed out of the window, and we’re meant to revel in our more outrageous impulses. It’s a similar argument to the defense of horror films or ultra-violent movies – these movies allow for us to explore dark aspects of our personalities in a safe and harmless environment.

But is blackface so harmless?

Blackface was a theatrical concept popularized in the mid 1800s, and it was used to satirize then-contemporary views of black people and black culture. Its popularity last in the United States until about the 1950s – though there were still moments in popular culture when blackface made appearances.

Still, every Halloween, I see some awful examples of how people seem to forget how messed up it is to go out in blackface. But this year, I’ve found some truly depraved examples of blackface – like this one. Apparently, it’s funny to make light of the Trayvon Martin murder.

And it’s not just blackface that’s aiming to win “Most f’d up costume of the year” – three guys from Chicago did this. I’ll give you a moment to look at the picture and then shake your head in disgust and dismay. Are you done? Wait, there’s this, too.

Look, it doesn’t take a huge leap to understand why the first two examples are distressing. Not only are these images racist, but they are also lampooning two very tragic events: Martin’s murder and the Asiana Airlines crash (that killed 3 ).

But even if we remove the tragic elements from the Martin and Asiana stories, we’d still be left with some disgusting costumes.

Cherry-picking misunderstood and imagined cultural tropes and then crafting costumes that affirm these tropes doesn’t make for much of a fun Halloween. One shouldn’t find amusement and entertainment at other people’s expense. For many, these costumes aren’t racist, but merely a sign of folks having a good time, and those who point out the issue are just killjoys and spoil sports.

I know it may be hard to believe, but I’m a fun guy. Really. But I never had to dip into racial buffoonery to get a laugh. I don’t turn to ethnic minstrel acts for a good time. There’s a reason why these stereotypes persist and endure – and there’s a link between that endurance, and the still problematic state of race relations that place undue, onerous expectations and limitations on racial and ethnic minorities. It’s all connected!

Miley Cyrus earlier did some of her own cultural exploitation when at the VMAs, she messily slapped together all kinds of offensive markers of the exploitation of black female sexuality. The performance is a high-profile example of what people do when they put on geisha drag, or wear ponchos and sombreros to go to a Halloween party. We may fool ourselves into thinking that we’re lampooning the racism, but in reality, we’re merely affirming it. Because, otherwise what would be the point? When frat brothers want to dress up like black people, they often go for the “gangsta” look – low-slung jeans, tank-tops, bandanas, gaudy jewelry – why? Because that is the image of black males that they see most often, and it’s a clear and easily copied image – think about it, when’s the last time a group of frat brothers decided to dress up like black lawyers or black doctors? There’s no joke there because none of the negative stereotypes exist – and that’s what this all boils down to: donning blackface merely becomes a celebration of a dated, and often-evil cultural practice that has no place in contemporary society.


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Filed under commentary, Nonfiction

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