Is Blackface just a “Halloween Costume?”

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.

 

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Sonia Joseph: A name we all should know

Sonia Joseph. That is a name I want you all to know.

Sonia Joseph is the mother of the late 20-year-old Giovonn Joseph-McDade, who was shot to death by police officers in Kent, Washington last June.

Like any mother who loses a child, especially so unexpectedly, she was shattered.

Today, January 29th, 2018, Sonia’s quiet but brave voice was heard.

In King County, Washington (the largest of the State’s counties), it is now required by law to provide free legal representation to the families of victims killed by the police.  Continue reading

Feeling Invisible in the Doll Aisle in 2018

You all are hopefully aware of the the “Doll Test” conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark the 1940s, and if not, you should be (click here to learn more). The results were horrifying and ultimately led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision to end segregation in our schools.

 

Despite the paramount changes that the study led to, it still seems apparent that dolls continue to affect the wellbeing of our children, which as a mother of multiracial girls, is something I’ve struggled with.

First, a little background information to help put my family’s personal circumstances into perspective. I have two daughters, both from my previous marriage, who are very different in terms of their physical features (well I suppose in personality, too). They both are stunningly gorgeous in their own rights. Their heritage stems from the far off lands of Africa, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, and Poland to name a few.

My older daughter has light skin that tans beautifully in the summer, making all the rest of us pale ladies jealous.

 

Her face is draped in brown ringlets (3b) with natural golden highlights that turn her hair blonde at the tips. She has dark brown eyes with long, beautiful eyelashes.

My younger daughter has skin about a shade or so darker and during the summer months, she too turns a gorgeous shade of golden brown that lasts until about this time of year. Her eyes are big and brown but significantly lighter than her sister’s, and frankly, are mesmerizing.

 

Her hair is not quite black, but dark with natural highlights from the sun. It is wrapped in very small-coiled curls that are much different than her sister’s but equally as pretty (for all you curly-haired ladies out there, I’d say she is a 3c).

These two girls are enough to take your breath away. But I digress.

Back to dolls. It is almost impossible to go into a store and find a doll that matches their appearance. All little girls want a doll that looks like them (although we found out in the “Doll Test” that actually may not be the case if the child is ashamed of who they are). But in a period where mamas are working overtime to try to pry apart the misconceptions of the beauty industry and the deceipt caused by racism, most of us are trying hard to remind our girls that they should be proud of their differences and embrace them. Easier said than done when you are shopping at the toy store—even in 2018.

At any particular doll store, there are countless  varieties of white baby dolls with eyes and hair in every shade and style. Then comes the Latina dolls. Dark hair, dark eyes, one skin tone option, and usually only one hair texture choice as well. Same usually goes for Asian dolls. Is it not repulsive to you that they still categorize entire groups of people, even if they span across different countries or in some cases, continents, as having one particular look? It is unacceptable. There are distinct differences between people from different parts of the world and they should not be lumped together as one.

Move on to the African American section. With the vast range of beautiful black girls in our country and in the world, you’d be shocked to see the limited options you have available. Typically the skin is dark, the eyes are dark, and, depending on the store, the choices are usually either only the more kinky options or just darker shades of the “Caucasian styles”—but typically never anything in between. While it is a huge step forward that that these brown dolls even exist, it is time for our toy manufacturers to get with the times and to start respecting our daughters by celebrating their diversity.

I want my girls to be proud of each and every one of their heritages, and telling them they have to choose in the store is wrong. Where are the really light skinned black dolls with 3c hair or even 3b like my other daughters? Can a black doll not have straight hair? Can we not move forward and accept the fact that every day, our nation grows more and more diverse? So many companies continue to try to praise themselves on being culturally aware and celebratory of our differences, but I call bull shit.

Why can’t the brown dolls have more than two skin tone options or different eyeshades, or hair that comes in more than one texture? I have purchased probably 10 dolls each for my girls and while they come close in some of the basic features, we are yet to find a match.

So—remembering back to my childhood days, I looked up the American Girl store where you can create your own look-alike doll for a whopping $200 each. While that is an issue in and of itself, further research left me even more disheartened. While you can try to customize skin color—the custom hair options do not cater to black girls at all. This is is as close as I could get. CE9DE26F-E8C8-43E6-8EAA-E860E7CC7D8C

Really? At 200 dollars per doll, that is the only option you have for short curly hair (and the long version is literally the same texture just a longer length)?

While I appreciate the attempt at allowing folks to customize, there is something seriously wrong here. Where are the other American American or Latina hair options? American Girl is supposed to be the gold standard of dolls here in our country and even they don’t offer more diverse hair options? You can’t just dye the Caucasian hair a darker color and say it will work for all people. (The next time you are looking at angels for the tops of Christmas trees, you may notice the same thing. Rather than make a different version, it is as if the manufacturer simply dyed the blonde hair and made the skin brown. A little effort would be appreciated.)

The good news (and for a much better price I might add), is that there are stores like Target and Walmart that are at least trying. Even so, notice, that although there are different hairstyle options at Target, the African American doll’s hair color is always the same–and so is the color of her eyes.  If my daughters wanted a doll there, they’d have to compromise on a skin tone that is either way too light or too dark in comparison to their own, and if they wanted to match hair or eye color and style, they would certainly have to make a decision about what features they would need to give up. It isn’t right to ask children to choose what race they want to represent most.

 

I hope that more stores continue to offer customization options, but with that comes a great responsibility to be inclusive of everyone. I would hope that our national leaders in doll manufacturing would strive to provide options that can make every child look and feel pretty and like valuable members of society.

As it stands, when a person isn’t represented, they are left feeling invisible and unworthy. There might as well be a disclaimer that says that, if you are a minority and/or multiracial, your chances of getting a doll that looks like you are slim. We can do better!