Blackface: Not Even Once
Should you ever doubt that we live in a very weird, very racist, very backwards country, we are currently in our third, yes third, blackface scandal of the past few months. Just last month, Republican Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned after 14 year old photographs of him dressed in blackface wearing a purple tee-shirt with the word ‘Katrina Victim” on it surfaced
This followed the eminently predictable fall of Megyn Kelly after she shanked her once-promising television career in the back by asking aloud, what’s so gosh darn wrong with a little blackface now and then? It’s just good, innocent fun, right? And shouldn’t soul sisters be flattered that white people want to look like them, if only for the sake of a Halloween party? You certainly can’t expect someone like Kelly, who until recently was one of the highest paid “journalists” of all time, to know anything about the shameful history of minstrelsy in America, can you?
Most recently, Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam shocked an endlessly shockable public when an image on his college yearbook page of a man in blackface next to a dude in a Klan robe surfaced. First Northam did the decent thing and apologized. Then he changed course and is now insisting that he is neither the man in blackface nor the man in the Klan garb and that the pictures probably just got mixed up.
Was Northam the man in the photograph? Probably, but a bigger, possibly better question to ask in 2019 is why, for the love of God, would any white person, no matter how racist, or hateful, or deluded choose to do blackface knowing the ugly, vicious history of the form and the enormous social, professional and economic consequences of getting caught paying homage to Al Jolson?
Besides, it’s not as if you decide that it might be fun to do blackface despite it being justifiably and extremely verboten and then bam, three minutes later you’re smiling like an idiot in a party picture that just might force you to resign as Governor of Virginia or Secretary of State of Florida. There’s a whole process! It’s intense! You need to buy the face paint, and put it on, and then go to the party where presumably you aren’t greeted at the door by someone saying “Why are you in blackface, you demented lunatic, and will you please get as far the fuck away from here as humanly possible?”
What I’m saying is that there are many, many points along the way where someone intent on dressing in blackface for a party could stop, take a step back and contemplate what they’re doing and why it is so transparently, egregiously wrong.
So why do weird pockets of white people, in 2019, still somehow think that blackface is a socially acceptable option and not a horrible mistake whose negative consequences are enormous and permanent?
The answer, I suspect, has a lot to do with peer pressure. Frat boys get drunk and challenge each other to be as obnoxious and transgressive and boorishly male as humanly possible. These awful images speak powerfully to the toxic arrogance of youth, to the sense of invincibility that takes hold in rich white teenagers when they go away to college, to schools where their race and class and parents’ money will protect them from the consequences of their actions. If you’re going to test the limits in terms of sex and drugs and drinking and partying then why not test the limits in other ways as well? The illicit allure of blackface, I would imagine, lies in no small part from the idea that you are transgressing a line that society rightly tells us should never be crossed and getting away with it.
That’s another part of the answer. I would like to imagine that the choice to do blackface never goes well, that it always results in the minstrel show revivalist getting fired or condemned. But that only happens when people get caught. I’m sure there are plenty of blackface photos and costumes that didn’t result in massive negative consequences because they were only shared by people who didn’t find anything wrong with a white person pretending to be black for a naughty laugh.
Besides, Lorne Michaels responded to the election of our first black President by having a non-African American, Fred Armisen, play him rather than sketch performers like Key and Peele or Donald Glover, all of whom auditioned for Saturday Night Live unsuccessfully, because god knows you wouldn’t want a black man to play the most famous and powerful black man in the world.
Armisen was just continuing a tradition personified by Billy Crystal, a maverick who has never let being a rich white man keep him from playing black celebrities. Hell, even Jimmy Kimmel thought it was somehow okay to do blackface when it meant sharing his not at all racist Karl Malone impersonation with the world.
In conclusion, don’t do blackface. Just don’t. You won’t get away with it, and even if you avoid external consequences, you should feel enormous shame .
So don’t. Just don’t. Blackface: not even once.
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