When I walked into my apartment building last Friday night this guy came storming out of the elevator and the first thing I noticed about him was that he looked weird. It seemed like he had some kind of skin condition, the one where your skin is patchy and discolored in certain places. The New Yorker in me purposefully avoided looking at him because, whatever, I’ve seen everything and I didn’t want to stare. But this guy went out of his way to make sure I noticed him.
“Hey, what’s up bro,” he’s says kind of jokingly, practically right in my grill. I was forced to acknowledge him and that’s when I realized he was in blackface. Face, arms, hands, the whole thing. I was doubly offended — offended that he was in blackface in the first place and offended that he went out of his way to make sure that I, a person with permanent yet flawless blackface, recognized him. The people on my floor were having a Halloween party and the blackface was part of his costume. It’s supposed a light-hearted joke, I guess, but it was especially unfunny seeing as how I’m in Richmond, Virginia, a place that is known for not liking black people very much!
Every Halloween there are white people who think it’s so fabulous to throw on some black, brown, or red paint and call it a costume. But why is this happening? Seriously — what is so amusing about blackface? Is it some kind of postmodern commentary about how we are so post-race now? Blackface is a look we’ve seen time and again for hundreds of years, and it’s not anymore original or exciting in 2012 than it was in the 19th century.
Blackface minstrelsy was an important novelty and performance tradition that gained popularity in the UK and the United States in the 19th century. And it is problematic not least because it promotes dangerous stereotypes about people of color. In these caricatures, blacks were regularly portrayed on stage by white people as lazy buffoons who lie, steal, cheat, and who could not speak English properly. That’s what they thought about us at the time, so if you don’t know why people take offense to it, that’s why. Minstrel performers did their best to appropriate the stereotypes of black people and other ethnic minorities for a laugh, insisting on how freakish, uneducated and unlike white people blacks were. That’s the commentary blackface always makes.
The best historical example of the danger of blackface is the 1915 silent film The Birth Of A Nation, which is always touted as a whopping cinematic achievement. But for all of its bougie innovations, the thing is that the film had white men portraying black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive at a time when blacks were escaping the South and migrating into the North, West, and Midwest. Plus, the film was widely used by the KKK as a recruitment tool. So.
Vanessa Beecroft, VB 61
Every now and again, blackface reappears in other, less seemingly racist areas like fashion and popular culture. Progressive artists, like Vanessa Beecroft, have painted models black to make political points, like in the performance piece above where she attempted to raise awareness about genocide in Darfur.
Die Antwoord, “Fatty Boom Boom”
Blackface pops up in music videos, too, like in “Fatty Boom Boom,” the new video for the South African trio Die Antwoord, where they make fun of Lady Gaga and promote stereotypes about South African culture. In blackface!
Shirley Q. Liquor, “K-Mark”
Shirley Q. Liquor is the drag persona of Chuck Knipp, a white gay male who frequently performs comedy routines in blackface as the ghetto, overweight, and prolific Food Stamps-user Shirley Q. Liquor. The thing is, his routines as Shirley Q. are hilarious, and I used to think Shirley Q was everything until I discovered she was played by a white gay.
Models in blackface have graced the high fashion editorials of Vogue Paris, Italian Vogue, V, Numéro, and we tend to think that that kind of blackface is better than some frat bro putting it on because fashion is run by gay dudes and divas, and those are definitely the least racist kinds of people! But why put models in blackface when you could just, you know, use black models? Fashion, like drag and pop music videos, is supposed to be excused from political correctness because these are art forms and modes of cultural expression, and we shouldn’t limit expression.
I get it. But know this: whether it is intended as a commentary, a political gesture, a provocation, as a joke, or as a costume, the problem with blackface is that white people can put on blackface and evoke the stereotypes and caricatures of black and other ethnic people for the moment. But guess what? Once you’ve washed off all of that body paint, and I’m sure it’s a bitch to get out of every single crevice, you get to go back and be white again, enjoying all the wonderful benefits of perfect credit, swift taxi service, job security, the comfort of knowing that you are sexually or romantically desired by all people at all times, and of seeing your image reflected in every cultural medium.
If I dressed up in whiteface I would still be black at the end of the day.