Full disclosure: years ago, I went as a white colleague of mine for Halloween and she had planned to go as me. The day of the party arrives and she can’t make it, but I decided to keep my costume intact. Some close friends of mine decided to go as ‘thugs’ and had taken some makeup of mine to darken their skin. I don’t remember exactly what I said to them at the time, but it was something along the lines of, ‘you don’t have to be dark to be a thug.’ They respectfully (and wisely) stopped with the makeup. I, however, when out in full pale makeup, wig, stuffed bra and overalls, looking like a life-size Raggedy Ann doll. And the reaction?…I won best costume. During my heartfelt acceptance speech, I thanked my absent colleague, and my touching words were met with a face full of silly string. I promptly took my seat. The lesson? It’s that serious and sometimes, it’s not.
Sometimes, It is
I recoiled when my friends tried to darken their skin to portray hoodlums because they were playing with a stereotype, the idea that baggy clothes and a tough guy pose is the sole province of dark skinned people. I couldn’t sit with that and when I expressed that to them, they respected it and stopped. So what made my get-up any less objectionable? Not much. It was in poor taste, as costumes typically are on Halloween, but I was a joke (not a stereotype) and the target was in on it.
And Sometimes, It’s Not
The term blackface and minstrelsy has been used more in the past couple of days since the implosion of Megan Kelly’s talk show. If you haven’t seen it, check it out below. “It” happens around the 4-minute mark. After watching though, I genuinely don’t think that Kelly was defending traditional blackface as being an acceptable costume when she was a kid and here’s why: the example she gives of Luann De Lesseps, and the flack she received for her Diana Ross costume on the Real Housewives of New York, which surprised and confused Kelly. And after seeing the picture, I think I was more offended by the hair (Diana Ross would never) than her skin.
Blackface and more specifically, Minstrelsy, was a popular form of entertainment starting in the 1830s. It was especially racist because of its reliance on popular stereotypes of African Americans and influential because it reinforced the worst assumptions that White Americans had, giving the perspective that theatregoers were getting accurate depictions of Black life. And even though minstrel shows would eventually be replaced in popularity by vaudeville and later on, motion pictures, many of its staple characters (Mammy, Sambo, Tom, etc) remained deeply entrenched, making their way to later mediums, including radio and television, forcing black actors to accept demeaning roles or unemployment.
Fast forward to the 21th century, minstrel shows are dead, but dressing up as another race…not so much:
The vast majority of the depictions above are from comedies (where the boundaries of good taste are…looser) and are, what I believe, Megan Kelly was referring to when she said ‘blackface’. The significant difference between these images and traditional blackface is obvious, but the most important one is time. It would be quite a stretch to say in 2018 that any one of those individuals greatly influenced the perceptions people had of the specific ethnic group they were imitating; I didn’t watch Ms. Swan on Mad TV (bottom left) and think, ‘So that’s what they’re really like!’ Those who claim that race based costumes are essentially the same as blackface in minstrelsy are themselves dressing their logic in the ill-fitting clothes and garish makeup of a time gone by and, are in effect, denying the successful work done to drain the once popular artform of its power.
Racism is often defined as having an element of power, and I would suggest the missing piece is not prejudice, but suffering. Black Americans suffered under the perpetuation of racial stereotypes popularize in Minstrelsy. Can we say that today? That Robert Downey Jr’s Oscar nominated performance in Tropic Thunder set us back a few years? That Megan Kelly’s genuine question about what qualifies as being racist has done tremendous harm to progress? I would be afraid to be a part of a movement where suffering is wielded as weapon against those who would be better served by mercy, and energies are focused on draining power from individuals rather than from the institutions.
There is a line. Let’s talk more about where it is and why and less about who’s crossing it.