Another friend, one who is smart and generally well informed, wrote to say, what’s the big deal with blackface? Suprisingly, he was not familiar with the history of minstrel shows, and seemingly unfamiliar with the controversy in general. And while yet another facebook friend’s reply was basically to say, “don’t do it, just don’t, because you shouldn’t,” that didn’t seem to completely satisfy him.
For a lot of people, the rule that white people shouldn’t wear blackface is self-evident, but actually, very little in life is self-evident. Self-evident is when an alien came from a distant galaxy and you told him something people do and he says, oh, that makes total sense. And I don’t think an alien would instantly grasp the blackface issue, because it’s contextual and historical.
So I wanted to try and answer the question. In fact, I’m going to give three answers: the answer that’s generally given, a consideration of what blackface implies, and finally a personal, why-I-wouldn’t-do-it-answer. I was originally just going to post an answer in the facebook thread, but then another friend posted his contention that it’s okay to use makeup to match skin tone for the sake of veracity, and since my middle answer is concerned with that, I figured I’d put this on my blog and tag them both.
My Three Answers to Why Shouldn't White People Wear Blackface
Most of the objection to blackface are contextual, of course. It started out in the minstrel shows, and in early Hollywood, blacks (and Asians, and Native Americans) were generally played (and defamed) by whites. Even some black stars were required to darken themselves, like Lena Horne, whose fair skin was considered too confusing for white audiences who wanted their blacks black and their whites white.
But I feel there’s a further issue with blackface. Consider, for a moment, the reverse; black people in whiteface. It’s not especially common, and I have a theory as to why. It’s because black people aren’t defining characters entirely according to their skin tone. If a black person dresses as Superman, are they going to put on white make-up, thus making an explicit statement that Superman is a white guy and black people can’t be Super Men? I doubt it. I think most black people think nothing of dressing as a leprechaun or a Viking or a Pilgrim without whitening their skin. Darkening your skin to reflect a character’s skin is, ultimately, a way of saying that race is a defining characteristic of who we are. Even that it's the defining characteristic.
So the question becomes, is it really necessary to have dark skin to make the costume right? If I want to be, say, Martin Luther King, should I wear blackface?
Well, no, both because that would be the ultimate slap in the face for African Americans and because even with blackface, no one would know who I was. White guy in a suit or black guy in a suit, I’m still going to have to explain my costume to everyone, which to my mind makes it a kind of crappy costume. On the other hand, if I go as Flava Flav, do I need dark skin? If I wear a giant freaking clock around my neck, is anyone not going to know who I am if I’ve got white skin?
Would I look more like Flava with darkened skin? First, no, because we look nothing alike, and second, who cares, because I’m not an actor playing him in a movie. It’s a freaking Halloween costume. It’s supposed to be fun and clever and entertain other people; it’s not supposed to allow me to walk into his house and have his wife say, “Honey, so glad you’re home.”
And yes, it does seem like a double standard that no one would make a big deal out of if someone wore whiteface. But the reason no one would make a big deal out of it is white people don’t care. There’s no history of us being denigrated by whiteface. We would all just go, hey, cool makeup.
I wrote a while back about the oddity of murder jokes being far more acceptable in modern society than rape jokes. I don’t make rape jokes, and I don’t wear blackface, because right now, these are both open wounds in our society, and why would I want to pick at an open wound? Blackface pisses off a lot of black people. I’m not black, so I’m not going to say, dude, get over it, grow a sense of humor.
I’m not saying you should never offend people. Lenny Bruce used offending people to great effect. I’m saying offending people shouldn’t be done cavalierly. If you’re a satirist who has a statement to make involving blackface, I could see that. If you’re a drunk guy at a costume party dressed like Little Black Sambo, you’re just an asshole.