We’ve Got Egg on Our Blackface

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The nefarious practice of blackface reared its ugly head again this past Halloween in startlingly high-profile incidents. Dancing with the Stars alumna Julianne Hough created an ill-advised costume tribute to a character on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, complete with blackface. Two coaches at a California high school attended an event dressed as the Jamaican bobsled team. And from across the country, photos of students showing up to parties in blackface popped up all over blogs and other social media outlets.

Clearly, we’re not doing such a great job educating today’s students, or society in general, about the problems inherent in this practice; we’ve got egg on our collective blackface.

My own experience with blackface goes back to 1985, at my all-white high school. My freshman year, a group of seniors dressed as Rick James and his band, singing “Super Freak” down the hallways, and a group of students dressed as the Fat Albert Gang my senior year. Both groups had smeared dark makeup all over themselves; some wore Afro or dreadlock wigs.

I distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable with these incidents and wondering whether they were appropriate. Today, when I discuss these and other examples with my students, I often hear both white and black students argue that it’s all in good fun, that those who wear blackface are just playing “characters” or paying tribute to performers they respect.

But the simple fact is that blackface cannot be a tribute because it is a caricature, a demeaning representation of one racial identity, and by definition a reduction of a whole people’s identity down only to their skin color. The ramifications of this for social equality in the United States can be very damaging. As Manthia Diawara, chair of the Africana Studies Department at New York University, writes:

“In the blackface myth, there is a white fantasy which posits whiteness as the norm. What is absent in the blackface stereotype is as important as what is present: every black face is a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that is placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite.” 

The best way we can get students to understand this issue is to explain the historical context in which blackface emerged. Students need to know the history of minstrelsy, a performance practice used to demean African Americans, promote a concept of whiteness that reassured immigrants and others at the bottom of the economic ladder that their status was at least higher than blacks and exploit black culture for white profit. Without understanding this history, it is impossible for young people to see contemporary incidents as part of a longer continuum of degradation and racist constructions.

I’ve taught about the history of blackface and minstrelsy many times; in the beginning, I felt uncomfortable showing such horridly racist imagery to my students, worried that they might either be offended by the image or actually enjoy clips of The Amos ‘n Andy Show or Al Jolson. But I quickly realized that students approach the subject with the appropriate seriousness and often make connections between minstrelsy and contemporary pop culture that expand my own knowledge as well.

Many resources are available to help educators build lesson plans about the problem of blackface, including some excellent histories of minstrelsy, blackface and other racial/ethnic stereotypes. It’s time we confronted this issue more directly. In that way, perhaps we can help prevent further careless and insensitive incidents of blackface in our society.

Additional Resources

Alvarez, Natalie and Stephen Johnson. “Minstrels in the Classroom: Teaching, Race, and Blackface.” Canadian Theatre Review, 147 (Summer 2011): 31-37. doi: 10.3138/ctr.147.31.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Fourth Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2001.

Lhamon, Jr., W.T. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Mahar, William. J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana and Chicago, Il: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

 

Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.

Comments

The blackface history is

Submitted by Harriet Manning on 21 December 2013 - 12:49pm.

The blackface history is alive and kicking, as I argue in my new publication, 'Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask': http://www.amazon.co.uk/Michael-Jackson-Blackface-Ashgate-Popular/dp/1409455106

Michael Jackson's dance moves and imagery have clear links back to the tradition: here are the roots of his amazing iconography. But the book goes on to argue that blackface minstrelsy's racist constructs and tropes were the source of the problems MJ had to face. In turn, I argue Jackson took the traditional mask and deconstructed it in a powerful act of reclamation.

Thanks for writing this. I

Submitted by Mr. Rothach on 12 December 2013 - 12:31pm.

Thanks for writing this. I don't know about nowadays, but from the 1930's through '50's there was also yellowface-white actors who played Chinese people. Such as in the Charlie Chan films, which my father collects. Always talking with a weird grin, eye brows taped back at odd angles, and a retarded accent. Meanwhile, secondary Chinese characters were played by actual Chinese-Americans who spoke perfect English without the weird, teeth-baring grin. A general course about how racial minorities were portrayed in white cinema might be interesting teaching material as well.

Retarded?

Submitted by LM on 15 December 2013 - 4:41pm.

Retarded?

Mr. Rothach, I agree that we

Submitted by Jenice View on 13 December 2013 - 5:10pm.

Mr. Rothach, I agree that we need to be concerned about all stereotyping and negative portrayals of oppressed peoples, including people who have mental retardation.

Along with blackface, we need

Submitted by Jeff on 11 December 2013 - 2:47pm.

Along with blackface, we need to discuss the impact that redface, or costumes depicting American Indians, has on the image of American Indians. As is often the case, the A.I.'s are forgotten when talking about negative stereotypes. Start opening your eyes.....blacks are not the only race portrayed with negative, exaggerated stereotypes, yet I cannot recall any article about it in Teaching Tolerance! Has there been an article on American Indians? If not....WHYNOT!?

Hi Jeff, Actually, that's a

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 11 December 2013 - 3:37pm.

Hi Jeff,

Actually, that's a topic we talk about a lot. Not only have we run magazine articles and blogs, but we often post on social media about the injustice done to American Indians by the way they are portrayed in sports and popular culture. And we don't stop there. We write about preserving and celebrating Native culture and about our history.

Here's just a few of the things we've published. There are many many more.

Getting Beyond the ‘Noble Savage’
http://www.tolerance.org/blog/getting-beyond-noble-savage

Nations Within
http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-12-fall-1997/feature/nations-within

Beyond the “Wild West”
http://www.tolerance.org/article/beyond-wild-west

Remembering a Tragedy: The Indian Removal Act
http://www.tolerance.org/blog/remembering-tragedy-indian-removal-act

An American Apology, Long Overdue
http://www.tolerance.org/blog/american-apology-long-overdue

Not for Sport
http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-15-spring-1999/feature/not-sport

What’s in A Mascot?
http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-26-fall-2004/feature/whats-mascot

Learning Lakota
http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-30-fall-2006/feature/learning-lakota

Anyone wondering about

Submitted by Steve B. on 11 December 2013 - 2:12pm.

Anyone wondering about whether or not blackface is demeaning should check out Spike Lee's amazing (and underappreciated) film "Bamboozled." Lee masterfully explores the complexity of American society's relationship with blackface and minstrelsy, and ways in which the ignorant attachment of white people to demeaning images of other racial groups is always harmful, whether or not harm is intended. And seriously, once someone tells you that harm is being done, the only reason to continue the behavior is the intention to harm further. Because white people are the normative (i.e., dominant) group in our society, they cannot fairly appropriate the experience of another racial or ethnic group, for either good or evil. Once we have a black actor who can play Othello--a role that explicitly examines the challenges of being an outsider, of looking different--why should any white actor don blackface to do it? In an America where black people were not ALLOWED to tell their own story, there might have been some justification, however flimsy, for it. But no longer. The stories of oppressed groups are not the stories of the oppressor. Oppressed peoples must speak of their own oppression. No white kid should dress as a black hero. Why not find a white role model who stood for the same values? If a little white girl admires Michelle Kwan, couldn't she dress like a figure skater LIKE Kwan rather than Kwan herself? If you are a member of the dominant group, your job is to listen to stories of oppression, to bear witness to them, to acknowledge them, and to refuse to carry the oppression forward.

I'm a middle aged white guy.

Submitted by DG-VA on 11 December 2013 - 8:43am.

I'm a middle aged white guy. Now that that's out of the way...
I agree that at best it is in poor taste, and at worst it is racist mockery for white people to go in blackface as "rappers," "convicts," "gang bangers," "food stamp mothers," etc... Obviously, smearing on shoe polish and wearing a suit saying you were honoring MLK is horribly offensive. But what about using a decent dark skin tone makeup and portraying someone in an honorable way? Not for a halloween costume or a frat party, but a historical presentation at school or something like that?

I'm not sure about it always being wrong to portray (whether mockingly or in admiration) a celebrity, just because they happen to be of a different race? Celebrities are ripe for mocking. Should white people only be allowed to make fun of idiot white celbrities and black people only be allowed to make fun of idiot black celbrities? I also really don't see a problem with portraying a fictional cartoon character such as Fat Albert, if it is done in a way to show fun and the positive aspects of that charachter. In my mind, it comes down to intent, and the makeup itself. I think no matter what one claims, smearing on the Kiwi polish is always going to be Al Jolson/Amos&Andy racist.

Ignorance is multi-faceted.

Submitted by Gary Latman on 10 December 2013 - 11:07pm.

Ignorance is multi-faceted. Some years ago, I had a discussion with my brother-in-law and his father about humor. My brother-in-law preferred The Three Stooges and I enjoyed Steve Martin. The older gentleman explained how he enjoyed the old Minstrel Shows. At the time, I was teaching at an all Black school and my girl friend was African-American. My family and sister's in-laws were Jewish. I explained that there wasn't a single Black person that I knew who thought white people in black face presenting mocking sterotypes was funny. He vehemently disagreed. He said he knew Black people who thought the Minstrel Shows were funny. I told him they were just being polite and trying to avoid an argument. He was a college graduate and a businessman, but apparently very insensitive.

Years later, I got into an argument with a student who referred to Maxwell Street, an outdoor market area in Chicago, as Jew Town. She explained that she goes there to "Jew people" to get good prices. I explained to her that the market was called Maxwell Street and that haggling was the appropriate word for street bartering and that what she said was offensive to Jewish people, myself included. She explained that the reference was what everyone she knew called it.

Very many years later, after she had graduated from college, she returned to the school and reminded me of our argument years earlier. She had mixed with people of various cultures since her high school days and had a greater sensitivity she told me.

If we all took some time to consider the words we use, what we say and how we say it, perhaps we would offend few people. On the other hand, most of us learn best through trial and error.

Really, if a child dresses as

Submitted by Janet Loveland on 10 December 2013 - 7:45pm.

Really, if a child dresses as Michelle Qwan(sp) for Halloween because she loved skating it would be called racist? Al Jolson was a product of his time, put his talent was real. Blackface in the original form was exploitive, with white eyes, mouth and gloves. A few kids dressing up as Eddie Murphy or some high schoolers dressing up for Halloween as Fat Albert is another story. That has nothing to do with minstrelsy and is a complete misrepresentation of kid's intentions.

The problem here is that a

Submitted by Jill Silos-Rooney, Ph.D. on 12 December 2013 - 8:16am.

The problem here is that a "kid's intention" may not even be understood by the kid! What I argue here is that we need to make sure that kids are educated about this issue--and especially about the fact that "intention" and "reception" are two different things. What some kids may think is a tribute can be a reduction of a person's entire identity to race--and no matter how well "intended", the result can be pain and humiliation for others--sort of like that mother who dressed her child as a KKK member for Halloween, as a tribute to her family's past [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/04/mom-son-kkk-halloween-costume_n_4212461.html]. I also firmly believe that blackface is caricature, and caricature can, in no way, be a flattering tribute.