Lincoln Anthony Blades answers common questions about white people wearing blackface.
This is an article I told myself I would never write, because I’ve touched on the topic of white people wearing blackface far too often and it’s becoming exhausting. I’ve had far many debates with people who try and tell me how “touchy” I am for believing that wearing blackface is ignorant and insensitive. And it seems I constantly have to address this topic around Halloween, which is quickly becoming a passive-aggressive prejudice playground. So because I’m officially sick and tired of addressing this topic every year, and in lieu of having to write a sentiment like this again next year, I have decided to write the definitive white person’s guide to wearing blackface on Halloween without looking like a complete racist or an oblivious douchebag.
Step 1: Don’t do it.
Step 2. See step 1.
Now, I know these steps may be too complicated for some people, so I’ve decided to attach a FAQ list to help those who may have further questions.
What if I want to honor someone I admire? What if it’s a great man, like MLK or Malcolm X?
Those men grew up in the time when blackface was used to propagate hate against African Americans, and prevent us from keeping a shred of opportunity and decency in the realm of entertainment, so donning blackface wouldn’t be an honor. That would be like honoring Anne Frank by naming Guantanamo Bay after her. If you really want to memorialize a notable person, then help fight ignorance any and every where it shows its ugly face.
What if someone does it without racist intent?
Your intent isn’t an excuse for ignorance that causes emotional damage. Maybe you truly are just trying to have fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to deeply wound someone. Yes, you may not have known better, but you do now, so act accordingly. For example, is it important to parse the intent behind this Halloween costume?
My Black friend isn’t offended, can I get a pass?
Ahh, the “if one person isn’t offended, then nobody should be” defense. Listen, Black people do not need to have a 100 percent group agreement in order for something to be deemed racially insensitive. Truth be told, the words of some Blacks are wholly unimportant because they are completely disconnected from issues of race. Blackface hurts Black people who understand the history of it, and if a man like Allen West is fine with it, that doesn’t mean that other Black people can’t still have their objections about it. We don’t all think alike, ya know.
But, I don’t even know what “Blackface” is?!
Once again, ignorance is not a valid defense. For the record, the Civil Rights Movement fought the Blackface phenomenon in the early ’60s, so please stop acting as if minstrel shows weren’t popular in the previous century. Heck, the March of Dimes used minstrel shows to raise funds as recently as 1964.
Blackface and minstrel show rhetoric still shows up today, like in 2005 when Michael S. Steele was running for the Senate, and political blogger Steve Gilliard doctored this photo to disparage Steele, adding the caption: “I’s simple Sambo and I’s running for the big house.”
But, it’s a non-racist part of our cultural tradition? Characters such as Zwarte Piet, Knecht Ruprecht and Père Fouettard are integral in our celebrations, and they aren’t even about Black people!
Oh? Then I’m sure you won’t mind trading the confusing, offensive aspects of the characters for something more inclusive, if it has nothing to do with Black people. Instead of making the hair kinky (typical of Black people) make it long and curly like a member from the band Kiss. Instead of drawing on unusually big and thick lips, like the minstrel shows in the U.S., prove you are different by using another color or doing away with the inflated-lips look altogether.
Someone has suggested those exact same changes in the Netherlands so the Dutch won’t seem prejudice. How did that go? I’m sure it was met with a hearty willingness to comply, in order to avoid looking racist, right?
Well it seems that at a “Pro Pieten” demonstration in the Netherlands (since the Dutch refused to make any changes no matter how dehumanizing their current hero appeared, to the point they felt they needed to rally) a Black woman was attacked, told to go back to “her own country,” and was almost assaulted.
So with all this being said, I refer back to my original point. If you are a non-Black person and you want to celebrate Halloween by wearing blackface, the key to effectively pulling off your costume without looking like an asshole racist is by putting down the brown or black paint, finding a new costume, and NEVER trying to wear blackface again, as long as you live.
Lincoln Anthony Blades blogs daily on his site ThisIsYourConscience.com, he’s an author of the book “You’re Not A Victim, You’re A Volunteer” and a weekly contributor for UPTOWN Magazine. He can be reached via Twitter @lincolnablades and on Facebook at This Is Your Conscience.
Originally appeared at UPTOWN Magazine
All photos courtesy of UPTOWN Magazine