I can’t believe that in 2019, we’re having a conversation about why blackface is bad, but here we are. Actually, I take that back. I can totally believe that in 2019 conversations surrounding blackface and why it’s wrong are happening.
Blackface comes up every few years, it seems, which is bizarre given the fact that we know it’s a bad thing. With this most recent surfacing of pictures of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam wearing blackface, the conversation obviously needs to happen again. It doesn’t matter if the pictures are from 1984, 2084 or 1884, blackface has never been — and will never be — okay.
Perhaps we need a little history lesson to drive the point home. Get out your pens and pencils and take notes, because we will be talking about this again at a later date. Blackface and minstrelsy got their start in the 1830s, before the Civil War. Poor and working class white people felt disenfranchised. And because they felt some type of way about how the upper class white people treated them, they decided to deal with their racism in the best way they knew how — making fun of black people. Because this was pre-war, black people were still known exclusively as slaves, so no one had a very good opinion of us. And we all know that the easiest way for white people to feel powerful is to demean a black person.
Minstrels would darken their faces with cork or shoe polish, making a point to leave exaggerated spaces around the eyes and lips. These minstrels would perform song and dance routines mocking black slaves from the South. And they were performing for audiences in the North and Midwest. Characterizations of slaves would focus on things like sloped posture and slow gait, and the over exaggerated way they speak. Minstrel shows portrayed black people as lazy, idiotic oafs who were prone to being thieves, cowards and tricksters. These shows basically set up the stereotypes that have followed black people ever since. Stereotypes we are still (infuriatingly) battling today.
Not so fun fact: the Jim Crow era and laws took their name from the (arguably) most famous minstrel show. Thomas Dartmouth Rice created the character of Jim Crow in 1830.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian says this:
“Blackface performances grew particularly popular between the end of the Civil War and the turn-of-the century in Northern and Midwestern cities, where regular interaction with African Americans was limited. White racial animus grew following Emancipation when antebellum stereotypes collided with actual African Americans and their demands for full citizenship including the right to vote.”
In 1848, Fredrick Douglass wrote about blackface in The North Star newspaper and said this:
“[Blackface performers] have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature … to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.”
Blackface lasted well into the early 20th Century — it’s not like it died with the end of slavery or anything. Stars like Judy Garland and Shirley Temple dressed in blackface during their early careers. Even black actors had to perform in blackface, because that was the only way white audiences would accept them as valid performers.
Blackface was literally created to oppress black people. So there’s no way that you can claim to be anything but racist if you choose to paint your face to “emulate” a black person. There are plenty of ways you can show your admiration for a black performer or athlete. None of them should involve putting anything on your skin to make it darker. So, if you insist on wearing blackface, you’re doing it specifically to mock black people. You are racist. No doubt about it.
Yes, we do stupid and ignorant things when we’re young. But doing something that is racially insensitive is never okay. Because there has never been a time that blackface was okay. Yes, it may have been deemed socially acceptable, but that doesn’t make it right. There is a big difference between not knowing something is wrong and doing something offensive that has always been offensive. Everyone has always known that blackface is offensive, then and now. Black people have never once been like, “Yeah, go ahead, this blackface thing is totally okay. We appreciate it.”
So, whenever a white person makes the conscious decision to don makeup that makes them look black, they know that what they’re doing is racist. Because it always has been racist.
“Well, it was 30 years ago, why is it an issue now?”
When you’re in a position of power, like governor of an entire fucking state, you’re going to have to encounter black people at some point. You will have black peers, black employees, and certainly black constituents. How would you feel knowing that a person who is now in charge of making decisions about your life once thought it was a good idea (as an adult, no less) to try and impersonate a black person by wearing blackface? And then posing for a picture with a person in a KKK robe and hood? That was entirely intentional.
Yes, a person can learn from their mistakes and work very hard to change the racist views they hold. But this clearly isn’t that kind of situation. Because if Gov. Northam had truly learned his lesson, stepping down would be a no- brainer. How can you successfully begin to lead a group of people when you once saw nothing wrong with knowingly wearing a symbol of their oppression? We can’t trust you, Northam.
No matter how old you are, it’s not okay to wear something that was created with the express purpose to dehumanize a group of people. Wearing blackface isn’t like wearing the jersey of a rival sports team. It is a symbol of hundreds of years of systemic racism. Black people can’t wipe the makeup off our faces and no longer be black. Our skin color and everything that comes with it, isn’t a costume. And if you can’t understand that, you’re racist, whether you want to accept it or not.