Beyond Halloween: Revisiting Blackface
Let me begin by saying that I am super tired of hearing about white stars or white people accidentally wearing blackface, especially when there have been so many mainstream conversations about this exact topic. White people have gone so far as to dress up as Trayvon Martin.Whoops!
Recently, Julianne Hough decided to dress up as “Crazy Eyes”, a character in the popular show, “Orange is the New Black.”
She’s since apologized, and other celebrities have decided to share their opinions about the event. Actress Martha Plimpton stated “White people: Do not wear black face. Life will still be okay if you don’t ever, ever, ever wear blackface. OKAY? GREAT.”
Plimpton later said that racist trolls were writing on her timeline because of her comments. I didn’t see the posts on her timeline, but I read the comments under another article about Plimpton’s statement and wanted to write this post after seeing how people were responding to her — not because of Hough’s costume.
Here are some examples of what people said in response to Plimpton:
John: “Meh…. The costume was never about blackface. Crazy Eyes is a character on a TV show. People playing the race card in this situation are ridiculous.”
Nonparieldolls: “Could she share her ‘message’ with black comedians and actors? Pretending to be white is ok, but dressing up for Halloween as a TV show character is wrong. Guess no guys out there better dress up as Ricky Ricardo!!! Imagine the affront to Latinos!! Bet Ms. Plimpton is enjoying the attention (BTW — who is she??)”
Conservative in a blue star: “If I paint my face orange, will a pumpkin feel offended??????, Lady, get a life!!!”
Patrick: “Why can’t a white person dress up as a black person??????? I don’t get it?????”
Jennifer: “Simmer down, it wasn’t that bad. Julie has nothing to be sorry for. Overly sensitive people need to apologize for opening their holes over every little thing.”
You can see how these comments showcase a very white supremacist understanding of racism, where race, as an issue, is virtually nonexistent. This is exemplified by the plethora of comments suggesting that black people wearing “white face” is equally as problematic as white people wearing black face.
Being “offended” by racism is presented as an indicatation that you’re overly sensitive, angry, and uptight. Yet again, people of colour are relegated to the irrational “hyper-sensitive,” “overly emotional” sphere.
Whenever people of colour want to discuss racial injustices, uncritical white folks hijack the conversation to discuss how they too have been persecuted under white supremacy. In trying to become “victims” of white supremacy, uncritical white folks silence the voices of people of colour and allies.
The fact that people are openly defending Hough’s decision to wear blackface demonstrates how twisted and confusing racism is. This is what happens when people don’t understand how systemic racism works. White bodies and black bodies are seemingly interchangeable because hey, we’re equal.
I’m reminded of a recent Dunkin’ Donuts ad in Thailand wherein the company decided it was a good idea to put a woman in blackface to sell their new “charcoal” donuts… Because what screams black donuts better than blackface?
That it’s 2013 and we’re still having these conversations about blackface is appalling.
It’s important to note that critical folks are not necessarily offended because of the black colour. We’re offended because of the context. This isn’t simply a matter of changing colours. Race isn’t 100% just about skin colour, but about the cultural connotations that we’ve constructed around particular races.
I mean, there’s a reason why Crazy Eyes is in a prison outfit in the first place. Blackness is constantly associated with deviancy, so when Halloween costumes capitalize on signifiers of blackness, without problematizing the deviant elements, the people that wear them are merely reproducing these stereotypes. “Black people” Halloween costumes are offensive, not necessarily because of the skin colour, but because of the connotations. When minstrelsy was a hit, the white characters who wore black face changed their mannerisms to act more animalistic and child-like. Black face, which translated to blackness, has always been a signifier of buffoonery.
We shouldn’t lose sight of who Crazy Eyes is and what she represents. The fact that she is a woman of coulor who is a prisoner, in a culture where people of colour face mass incarceration, is a direct result of white supremacy and racism. For a white person to dress up as a black prisoner, situated within the context of a white supremacy, is beyond ironic, especially when they don’t know the history of oppressive black representations that look similar to their costume. To dress up as your favorite character, without even understanding the conditions that surround them, is just plain ignorant.
Additionally, whiteface does not have the same effect as blackface. Whiteface is something that people of colour live daily — The need to perform as a white person to assimilate into white culture is whiteface. Whiteface is the norm for a white supremacist nation.
Remember when Tyra Banks wore whiteface to portray her favorite supermodels?
Though some uncritical folks labeled Tyra a racist, others pointed out that wearing whiteface did not have the same impact as blackface. Tyra was not dehumanizing white people. In fact, one could argue that she was emulating these women as role models. During the shoot, she tweeted: “Four hours of hair and makeup later, I’ve become ubermodel.” Wearing whiteface helped Tyra actualize her attempts to emulate these women. She wasn’t trying to make fun of whiteness or belittle white people.
If you are in denial that black people occupy lower social positions than white folks, then you will never understand why blackface and whiteface are interpreted differently. In a culture where people of colour use bleaching creams to lighten their skin and use lighter-toned makeup on their faces to look more white, wearing whiteface is not systemically offensive to white people. Though white people tan, they do so as a signifier of whiteness. Tanning becomes a classed activity that authenticates white femininity—it is not a quest to become black. In fact, if you tan too much, you are ridiculed.
The fact that women of colour try to lighten their skin-tone and eye colour on a daily basis, whereas white folks want to wear black skin only on Halloween speaks volumes. One tone is desirable, whereas the other becomes a tool to facilitate a funny or silly look.
White people in America have never experienced a time when people of colour controlled imagery and representations of whiteness . People of colour never collectively dehumanized white people or stripped them of legal rights. Black people do not hold systemic power in the ways that white people do. In a culture wherein black peoples’ citizenship as authentically equal Americans is questioned all the time, from Barack Obama and the birthers who question his citizenship, to Trayvon Martin not “belonging” and being “suspicious,” we have to be careful when we wear blackface. It is your duty as a white person to understand the intimate dynamics of racism because your privilege is based on it. Black people are not playing the “race” card. Being ignorant of white history and it’s violence, and then wearing blackface and claiming that you didn’t “know” IS the only race card.
The fact that Hough’s Halloween costume and other similar incidences are occurring in the same year that Trayvon Martin’s murderer walked free is no coincidence. In fact, it further illustrates how pervasive racism is in 2013.
Brad Paisley’s terrible phrase from his song, “Accidental Racist” is an apt expression of the ways racism manifests today. Evidently, it’s all “accidental.” Zimmerman “accidentally” killed Trayvon Martin and “accidentally” profiled him. Hough “accidentally” wore black face; she had no clue there was a history of racism attached to it, despite that fact that this conversation has been happening in the mainstream for decades. Those who are racist merely become repackaged as “victims” of their circumstances… Apparently they just didn’t know.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that black culture is a naturalized fixed entity that cannot change, I am, however, saying that people of colour are dehumanized in the current social order, and we have to be mindful of that. Though race is a social construction that we perform every day, the embodied, lived experiences of race matter.
Yes, Halloween is supposed to be a fun night when we can suspend our social conditions, but that doesn’t mean systemic realities disappear. If that were the case, women wouldn’t feel pressured to dress as sexy [fill in the blank] every year.
Aphrodite Kocięda is a graduate student in Communication at the University of South Florida and a contributor to the Vegan Feminist Network. Her current graduate research focuses on feminist activism in a postfeminist rape culture climate.