Blackface, Racial Costumes, And Racism

Brace yourself, this is going to be a long one.


It’s really hard to write on this site sometimes. My identity as Black, African, and foreign, regulates me to a position of disadvantage for what is largely a White, American audience. I am not writing for a majority of my representation – which given my particularly multicultural experience would be difficult anyway. It is what it is. I have class privilege, education privilege, intellectual privilege, and a host of other privileges. But I know enough about media and communication studies to know the value of relatable representation from an audience’s perspective; which many times translates to nothing more than race.

I know that ultimately in my position, it will take time and experience to overcome these unfortunate but important superficialities. Still, that is not the hardest part about writing on here. The hardest part is that many times, Thought Catalog truly lives up to its mission: All thinking is relevant. And that can be a tough pill to swallow when some thoughts are quite simply, erroneous.

Blackface. Native American costumes. Cultural appropriation. It must be Halloween. I don’t even know where to begin. Because while I try to be as helpful as possible in conversations about race, I am often torn between saying what I really feel, and altering my rhetoric into something that audiences – particularly White audiences – can be receptive of. This is of course problematic. And it is an example that even as someone who is educated in these matters, I am clearly embodying W.E.B. Dubois’s double consciousness of seeing one’s Black identity not only though one’s self but through the constructions of Whiteness. Albeit, my construction is shaped by being African, rather than African-American.

But the truth is I am tired of talking about race in a way that appeases the institutions that privilege Whiteness in the first place. So I’m not going to do that today. Today, I’m going to say exactly what I think. And hopefully it will serve as something both helpful and educational. But even if it doesn’t, I hope it serves as an expression of righteous anger. Because angry, I am.

To begin with Native American appropriation, it is a subject matter that I am making a personal effort to learn more about every day. So admittedly, my knowledge of the abuses – historical and present – faced by this group, is not as robust as others. However, in 2013, how people can get away with appropriating the most historically bastardized American group, confuses the hell out of me.

Let’s not pretend for a second this country’s history did not see to the near-annihilation of these peoples. Let’s not pretend that White Europeans who came here did not make Native Americans foreigners, in their own land. Foreigners, whose “costumes” some choose to embody a few days out of the year; while the rest of the time, they will never know what it is to be a Native American. To be born with that history as your history; to live in the bodies of the descendants of that history. But a few days in the year, the notion that you can perform an entire culture in the form of costume – a culture that many times the individual is rather ignorant of – is somehow, seen as okay. Do we accept Native American culture as a part of mainstream American culture? No. Unless of course it is to utilize that culture as a prop to serve White, European-American pleasure.

Then of course, there is Blackface. I came across two pictures of Blackface this past weekend. The Trayvon Martin one, and the Julianne Hough one, where she is performing as “Crazy Eyes” from the Netflix original, Orange Is The New Black. To say I was disgusted is a mild statement. I won’t go into detail regarding the history of Blackface. But it is important to know that this was and continues to be a performance of a caricature of Blackness. Allow me to reiterate this: It is not even a performance of Blackness, which is problematic on its own, but a performance of a caricature of Blackness. That’s what it was in the 1800s and that is what it is in 2013. It is performance for the pleasure of White, European-Americans at the cost of the dignity of those bodies. (In the case of Blackface in particular, it extends beyond the United States.) But there is clearly a pattern here.

Non-White bodies are socially constructed as different from White bodies. And not different in a manner in which diversity is perceived as desirable or acceptable or good. But these bodies are constructed in opposition to Whiteness. After all, if there is no Blackness, no Brownness, no “other,” what is Whiteness? It ceases to be defined; it ceases to exist. Thus, Whiteness is dependent on the “other” for its own identity. And this construction has been the foundation for modern racism as we know it today. It is why our society allows for a performance of the “other” in the form of costume. The “other” is constructed in opposition to the norm but can easily be “put on” or “taken off.” But the same is not true of Whiteness.

We often don’t talk about “White” as if it is a race. White people are given the privilege of being race-less in our social conversations, in our norms, and in lived experiences. And yet Whiteness is embedded in institutional privilege. And you cannot have those with privilege, without having those with disadvantage. And in terms of race, non-White bodies face the disadvantage of their otherness as a part of their very existence. Race and skin color for non-White bodies is hardly a costume.

These performances and costumes of people of color cannot be separated from our racist institutions or culture; they are merely artifacts in the system. A system where people and cultures that are constituted as being the opposite of White, not only face the realities of racism on a daily basis, but in so far as racism is embedded in the institutions that they operate under, also participate in their own oppression. Yes, as a person of color, I am a victim of racism. But I cannot claim that racism is institutional and cultural and present in hegemonic discourse, and also claim to be outside of it. I exist in it and thus I participate in it. And that knowledge ignites that righteous anger in me even more.

In the context of these performances and costumes, my body, my history, my experiences, and the experiences of people of color are something that White people can perform at-will. But they can also take it off at-will. I will never be able to take off my double consciousness. A person of color cannot see themselves solely through their eyes. So when there is a performance or a costume that is by its action – regardless of its intention – performing as an “other,” it is an insult to the experiences of those whose histories, lives, and very existence in their bodies, is at a disadvantage.

We’ve taken away the “White Bathrooms” and “Colored Bathrooms.” We’ve done-away with Jim Crow and with slavery, and we’ve tried to right some wrongs of colonization. But we haven’t done away with racism. And one of my biggest fears of our current socio-political climate is that we’ve replaced it with a dangerous color-blindness that is ignorant of history, and tolerant of casual racism. We do this when we articulate that racism ceases to exist in our institutions; we do this when we have the audacity to claim that a performance of an “other” is just a performance. When in reality, it is no different from subjecting those others to a lesser dignity within the parameters of their “othered” perceptions. And no, intentions do not matter.

I am not angry at White people. That anger would do nothing for me. And I don’t want anything to do with anyone experiencing White guilt. I don’t see how that would be useful. So what I do want? I want for all of us to first admit that we are in some shape or form, part of the problem. Whether we are more of a victim than a recipient of the privileges of a racist society; I want us to see how we embody these racist institutions even when we are actively resisting them. We have to see the racism inside ourselves before we can truly combat it.

Despite opportunities for education and our progression in society, it is still comprehensible for educated, intelligent people to believe that cultural appropriations are acceptable. And to overlook the racism that subsists in these costumes; to detach it from the cultural and institutional racism that we exist in, and sometimes perpetuate every day. This is how powerful racism is – we do not need to be conscious participants, to participate.

But silence is the worst enemy. And as long as I have a voice, I will always believe that it is my moral duty to not only resist racism, but to remind others that their voices have the capacity to perpetuate or resist racism as well. And within this capacity, when we use our voices, I believe that the dignity of certain bodies can be reclaimed, realized, and/or upheld. But when we are silent in the face of racism, these bodies are desecrated and slain; symbolically, and literally. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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