Apparently not all white Americans have gotten the message. Blackface is not okay. Never. Ever.
It’s not something that’s common knowledge amongst white folks though. But I wish that it was. I’ll explain why blackface is never okay.
Years ago in some random haze of college classes getting a communications degree at Wayne State University in Detroit, one of the cities in the United States that had, at the time, approximately 80 some-odd percent black population, I learned just why blackface was never okay. Never. Ok.
I’m not sure what I thought about it before. But it’s very likely that I didn’t realize that it wasn’t okay. And even possible that I would have thought it was okay if someone else did it. I don’t remember ever being confronted with it. But I do know that I was ignorant about the historical reasons why blackface is not okay. In my mind, it would likely have just been perceived as someone dressing up. No differently than say, a costume as a nurse or witch or whatever.
But since then, I’ve learned why it’s not okay. And before you start thinking, “but what if someone doesn’t mean it as an insult?” Here’s why. Because ignorance should never be an excuse for racism or bigotry. It does, often, in the United States, unfortunately. But it shouldn’t.
Blackface Historically Used to Perpetuate Negative Stereotypes
Historically, blackface was used to represent a demeaning stereotype of black people. Some historians say that blackface was used to justify slavery. Blackface was used to perpetuate very specific stereotypes that exist still today.
Blackface performances generally represented people of color as stupid, lazy, buffoonish, comical, liars, thieves, ugly, sexually provocative, unappealing, loud-mouthed, and who spoke unintelligibly.
Two of the common characters dressed in blackface were minstrel shows called Jim Crow and Zip Coon. The racial segregation laws were called Jim Crow laws originating with the minstrel character played by Thomas D. Rice, a satirist and actor. “Rice’s “Jim Crow” persona was a racial caricature contrived to flatter contemporary belief in white superiority.”
In fact, Jim Crow became a common synonym for the word negro, as it was so closely associated with stereotypes about blacks.
Blackface characters were used to continue to perpetuate outrageous stereotypes of black people up through the 1950s. They were used in minstrel performances, comical skits, with songs and exaggerated dance routines, with a mocking tone. Blackface performances were done specifically with the goal of letting white audiences laugh at the buffoonery of the black person.
Blackface is one of the subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) ways that stereotypes seeped their way into American culture. Blackface in minstrel shows, films, cartoons, advertising, and music of the American culture perpetuated many of the tired stereotypes that continue to find their way into mainstream thinking.
Blackface was a huge part of American culture and entertainment for several generations, going back as far as the 1400s and used regularly through the 1950s.
It went so far as to have black minstrel shows where black entertainers also used blackface, no matter how dark their skin. This makes me think that blackface was not only used to amuse white people –as well as injecting a sense of false superiority into white mainstream thinking– but to perpetuate negative stereotypes among people of color about themselves, leading to societal, low self-esteem.
What Julianne Hough and others have done is not the same exact thing. I’ll assume they weren’t purposely trying to invoke white superiority or perpetuate negative stereotyping. But the use of blackface costumes proves the ignorance of white Americans when it comes to the history of racism. At best, blackface is insensitive. At worst it is demeaning and racist. Either way, it’s just damn rude.
So, next time you think it’s “just a costume” think again. Blackface is never okay.
For more information:
Watch a Blackface performance: Notice the change in speech patterns and the clownish costumes: