What We Can Learn From Modern Day Blackface

By: Trae Higgs

Blackface was highly popularized in 19th century minstrel shows — traveling plays and stage performances that misrepresented the culture of black Americans. The white actors that made up these plays applied shoe polish, greasepaint, or burnt cork to their faces and bodies and painted exaggerated features onto their faces such as enlarged red lips to imitate black “features.” Blackface, in almost all its portrayals, encouraged racism, dehumanization, and reinforced stereotypes of African-American individuals as uneducated, lower-working or servant class. These performances peaked in popularity around the same time emancipated slaves were demanding and fighting for their civil rights — which triggered even deeper racial hostility.

Today, despite its degrading history, blackface has resurfaced and is taking on vastly different roles that are just as racist and problematic as ever before. From reality TV starts to luxury fashion brands, Blackface is very much relevant and still portrayed in modern day society.

On February 7, 2019, the luxury fashion brand, Gucci, was pressured to pull a sweater from all of its stores due to intense backlash after viewers reported its design closely resembled blackface. Shortly thereafter, debates ensued that positioned the sweater as “just a long turtleneck” or as “half a ski-mask” over the offensive stereotype it seemed to suggest. Critics even went as far as to insinuate that only ‘overly sensitive’ individuals would find the sweater racist. Alone the sweater does not scream blackface but in comparison to a historical Sambo minstrel blackface image – it is damningly similar. The long-necked sweater is tar black and not available in any other colors, it has a large red-lip outline reminiscent of the Sambo or “coon face” caricature, and it is being worn on a white individual. Are people being too sensitive or are people using the past to analyze how centuries of overt racism turns into a fashionable micro-aggression in the form of a sweater? I think the latter. Similarly, in December 2018, Prada released blackface caricature dolls that were in their storefront window in New York City.

Then, on February 6, 2019, Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, admitted to wearing blackface after his college yearbook surfaced and photos of him dressed up in blackface were splashed across the pages. When the photos of Governor Northam surfaced on February 1, 2019, not only did he adamantly deny that the blackface photos were him, he refused to step down as Governor even as the entire country questioned his integrity, racial impartiality, and ability to tell the truth about such an obvious matter. He acted as though the 1980’s were a “different time” and that it’s occurrence has no bearing on his record as a democratic, pro-Black and non-racist Governor.

Real Housewives of New York City star, Luanne de Lesseps, attended a Halloween Party dressed as Diana Ross in what appeared to be bronzed/darkened skin and an outrageously large Afro. This took place in October 2017, but the episode aired April 2018 and countless individuals took instant issue with this display of blackface. At the party, her white co-star, Carol Radziwill, immediately called it blackface to another cast member and then expanded on it in a recorded confessional interview. De Lesseps admitted to putting the bronzer on but it was mostly people of color who exacerbated the other point of blackface that people commonly forget about — exaggerated features.

The insinuation that black people are overly sensitive and continuously looking for ‘acts of racism’ are the most disrespectful claims. How are we at fault for being sensitive for black face and other overt racism constantly being thrown in our faces? How are we constantly looking for something that we didn’t even create? Fashion houses like Gucci and Prada, although not American born brands, were in existence back when blackface was openly acceptable. Turning a blind eye to it only boasts the belief that racial micro-aggressions and preconceived stereotypes thrive within shot-callers of these corporations who have used blackface caricatures as their “designs.” Even television stations, like, Bravo, that allowed a white woman to display blackface on their network (and aired said episode) reminds us that we live in a world where this can be done without any repercussions because an apology will follow and we all move on.

Truly dealing with these examples of racism and racial micro-aggressions would require that white Americans have the tools to discuss and address racism, discrimination, and how their privilege impacts how they receive claims of being racist and discriminatory. This would in turn require an education on how racism exposes the myth of American meritocracy and the acknowledgment of the existence and benefits of white privilege.

Black men and women continue to be discriminated against at their jobs, before the law, as medical patients, at the gas station, in classrooms, in higher education systems, etc. Despite the fact that black individuals are now and have been CEO’s, employers, judges, attorneys, doctors, car owners, professors and students. Black men and women as a whole have to fight with so many systems in which internalized racism runs deep and blatant racism is excusable everyday. Somehow there’s still a rationalization of what the person wearing blackface “meant” by it.

The point I hope most do not miss is: if a black person is telling you blackface is offensive - believe the black person. If a black person is telling you blackface is racist - believe the black person. And if history is readily available at showing why blackface is inappropriate and dehumanizing - believe the black person. Believe history and, to put it simply, do not perpetuate blackface or defend the use of blackface.