Blackface Is ALWAYS Offensive—When Will People Learn?

Janelle Harris Eye Roll

Black faceThe thing about living in a country that celebrates and prides itself in being a multicultural melting pot is that society in general doesn’t get to dictate what should and shouldn’t be insulting to the smaller groups of people that make up the whole.

We can’t tell gay folks to let the arbitrary use of the word “faggot” roll off them.

We can’t tell Jewish people that they really shouldn’t be insulted by “shyster.”

So, in that vein, we can’t explain away blackface and tell African-Americans that it’s really not all that offensive.

Julianne Hough is the latest celeb to get caught up in public fallout from a failed Halloween costume. She should know better. There have been more than enough examples set and fingers wagged before to derail her bad decision-making and the PR nightmare she’s in now. 

If you never have to deal expressly with race, you don’t understand what it is to be judged, criticized or vilified based solely on how you look and the behaviors other people associate with the color of your skin. That’s called white privilege. Simply put, the nuances and challenges around race aren’t part of your day-to-day reality. You don’t live them because you don’t have to, simply because that’s your birthright. That’s no one’s fault. It just is. Take that one up with the great people designer in the sky.

However, some white folks get it just because they’re informed, maybe through a close relationship with a person of color, maybe just because they’re astute and aware of how the world operates. But the bulk of the reaction, on this site and so many others, is that blackface is just not that serious. But oh, dear friends, it is.

What’s interesting here is that, as women, we’ve all experienced some level of sexism or, at the very least, disrespect simply because we ARE women. We find fault in it. We gripe about it. We pen big, long diatribes calling it out for its unfairness and put its proverbial head on a pike. So why it’s so difficult to extend that outrage to matters of race is baffling. The basest of explanations is that it’s an inconvenience to be politically correct all the time. What’s a little giggle at a white dude dressed up like Trayvon Martin or a white woman decked out like an inmate or a group of kids chained and shackled like slaves?
 
Answer: it makes a mockery of those people. All of them. Not just them, but the stories behind them. Not just them and the stories behind them, but the individual and communal suffering that resulted from their experiences. Just like putting on a headdress and yodeling like a maniac is a dis to Native Americans. Just like dousing your skin with white powder and donning a cheesy geisha costume will inevitably rub a Japanese woman the wrong way.

If I was big on Halloween—I haven’t dressed up since high school—I’d steer clear of the racial and ethnic get-ups. Just because painting your skin as a person of another color is just not a good idea. Especially for a celebrity.

Do a Google image search of ‘blackface, Halloween’ and your eyes will be assaulted with pics of made-up pimps, inmates, rappers, slaves and straight up sambos. Lots of them. Ain’t nobody dressing in blackface to be, say, Disney’s Princess Tiana. Every incident is designed to ridicule, belittle and devalue.

Apparently the real thrill behind Halloween, since it doesn’t come with a day off of work or a ritualistic exchanging of gifts, is that it allows the people who celebrate it to throw inhibition to the wind. That means folks who barely gave a damn about tolerance and multiculturalism are given carte blanche to be just as ignorant as they wanna be, if only for one night, and chalk their behavior up to just having some fun.

Memo to Julianne or anyone else who gets caught in blackface and wants to issue a public apology to save their reputation or their job or their credibility with their Black fans: Save that. Blackface isn’t some accidental insult. Many steps have to be ticked off the to-do list before the final look is achieved and if good conscience doesn’t pop up anywhere in the process—while you’re picking up paint at the store, while you’re applying it in the mirror, while you’re posing your foolish self with your foolish friends for social media photo shoot—your day-after apologies don’t move me. You knew better, even if you didn’t do better.

Where do you draw the line between what’s racially offensive and what’s just good-natured jokes?


Image via Flickr/Steve Snodgrass

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discrimination, in the news, racism