When scrolling through social media recently, I stumbled upon a CNN article noting that approximately 1/3 or Americans believe that dressing in blackface is acceptable. I read the article, not surprised to learn that white Americans were included in that poll.
When I commented, I simply asked why white Americans were asked for their opinions on something, when seemingly we should be asking the people who of color who could be/are offended by the behavior.
In response, an individual asked me why we should ask at all–because blackface is just a “Halloween costume.”
As someone who studied blackface extensively at the university level, I know that is not true and I’m willing to bet that most of people of color–and anyone who has studied the history of race in this country–would agree. In fact, all you have to do is Google the “history of blackface” to discover why. Actually, just look at some of the pictures and perhaps that will be telling enough. Watch an example of blackface at its “finest” here.
Blackface was and continues to be a form of buffoonery. It was introduced as “comic relief” to white folks both here and in Britain, and really was the first introduction of black people to television. The entertainers intentionally turned their roles into “caricatures” of black people, particularly slaves, by giving them tattered clothes, drawing huge lips, and so on. The actual shows degraded black folks “as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice” (Smithsonian, 2019).
The distortion of an entire race is not done accidentally. In fact, the timing of these shows and the rise of their popularity can prove it. For some, the shows were the only depiction of black people that they knew–and if these people were as horrible as they depicted–why would we consider them equals and give them the same rights? As the Smithsonian’s puts it, “By distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.” (2019). In fact, the performers themselves were often referred to as “zip coons,” which should be telling in and of itself. Minorities have and continue to face this type of treatment by the media, in which they first undergo an introduction to society in the form of buffoonery and then are faced with a lifetime of stereotypes based on those depictions. The implications of said stereotypes are deserving of a whole different response because of the detrimental consequences that continue to perpetuate things like police brutality.
With a history dating back to the original blackface character, “Jim Crow” (sound familiar?) of 1830, I think it is safe to say this is about more than just a “Halloween” costume. These intentionally-crafted caricatures of black Americans were meant as a way of demeaning an entire race of people and tricking white audiences into thinking that the stereotypes were real. I think it is completely appropriate to at least give people of color the courtesy of asking if these continued depictions are offensive to them; not deciding for them how they “should” feel. White people have done enough deciding on this topic.