The thing that most people look forward to in the month of October besides picking pumpkins, eating caramel apples, and Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte coming back, is Halloween. Sororities and fraternities have begun spreading their invitations to their annual themed costume parties. Dozens of commercials are being shown to encourage children, teens and adults to purchase their costumes early and not to miss any “spook-tacular sales”. I’ve seen polls all over Twitter from users asking whether they should dress up as Beyonce from her Formation video or as a character from Stranger Things. Amidst all of this noise, I always make it a point leading up to Halloween to remind individuals to be conscientious of what they choose to dress up as on October 31st. Through social media and word of mouth, I remind my peers to purchase or create a costume that will not offend or trigger another person. Yet, every year on Halloween and the days immediately after, I find myself looking at the image of a group of White people claiming to be “not racist” and to have “a bunch of Black friends” in Blackface. I am writing this article in hopes that I will be able to avoid the physical and emotional distress of seeing another White person in blackface. Please, do not wear blackface on Halloween. Blackface is never okay and should never be a part of your Halloween costume. It is offensive. It is racist. It does not matter what your intent is. I repeat, blackface is never okay and should never be a part your Halloween costume. It is offensive. It is racist. It does not matter what your intent is.
What is Blackface?
Blackface originated with White male actors creating and performing roles based on their perceptions of plantation slaves and free Black people between the years 1830 and 1890 when minstrel shows were at their peak. The issue with White actors blackening their faces with burnt cork or black grease paint portraying wild, prejudice-ridden perceptions of Black plantation slaves and free Black individuals, besides the fact that these actors are painting their faces black to perform racist caricatures of Black people, is the fact that these shows were done to intentionally mock, degrade and dehumanize Black individuals and culture to justify the enslavement, mass genocide and brutalization of Black individuals in the U.S. as well as to ensure that Black people, especially talent or those trying to do well for themselves, would never be seen as more than the dehumanizing stereotypes seen in these minstrel shows. These minstrel shows were put on and reenacted time and time again because, for some chilling, nauseating reason, the audience found it funny.
The Stars of the Minstrel Shows
Another impact these minstrel shows had on an already globally anti-black society is the fuel this gave to the narrative that Black people are animals, criminals, ugly, evil and inferior. White people’s perception of Black people was completely centered around what was seen at these shows and not reality. Every Black person was assumed to align with one of more of the stereotypes depicted by White blackfaced actors. The stereotyping of Black people has not gone away. The stereotypes depicted by these actors in the 1800’s are responsible for the violent, seemingly indestructible presence of racism in 2016 and serves as the root of the belief in the inferiority of Black people and justification for the violence against and disenfranchisement of Black Americans in 2016.
The most famous minstrel show characters portrayed by White actors in the 1880’s are: Jim Crow. When most people hear the term Jim Crow they think of segregation and the peak of the civil rights movement. Most do not know that Jim Crow originated in 1830 when a White minstrel performed named Thomas Rice blackened his face with burnt cork and danced on stage while singing the lyrics toJump Jim Crow. Rice became one of the first popular performers to profit heavily off of stereotypes and is known as the Father of Minstrelsy.
Zip Coon. First performed by George Dixon in 1834, Zip Coon made a complete mockery of what it meant to bee a free Black person in America. Dixon blackened his face, dressed in high style and carried himself as an “uppity Negro”, but failed in his attempt to be a respectable, dignified man because of the fact that he spoke in puns and malapropos.
Mammy. One of, if not the most, famous minstrel show caricatures of Black people is Mammy. Mammy is characterized as a heavyset, dark-skinned Black woman extremely faithful to her master. Mammy is commonly used among advertisers both back then and today, just look at Aunt Jemima.Uncle Tom. Almost as famous as the Mammy caricature is Uncle Tom. Toms are synonymous with the “good slaves.” Toms are depicted as being excessively slavish and subservient to White people. Uncle Toms are also very common amongst advertisers today; “Uncle Ben” is still being used to sell rice.Brute. The brute is a savage, thuggish, subhuman criminal. He is depicted as being a large, animalistic Black man who sexually victimizes White women. This character is essential to the demonization and criminalization of Black men. The narrative that Black men are criminals and a danger to White people, particularly women stems from the portrayal of this character in minstrel shows.
Mulatto. Mulattos are supposed to be caricatures of mixed-race males or females. Mulattos are portrayed as deceitful, tragic beings either intentionally or unintentionally passing for White until they are exposed as being multiracial by their White counterparts or discover themselves to be of both Black and White descendant blood. The Mulatto is often an object of sexual desire for White men.
Pickaninny. Pickaninnies are described as dark-skinned Black children with bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips and wide mouths into which they stuff huge slices of watermelon. In minstrel shows, pickaninnies were depicted as unintelligent, impulsive and disposable as they were always easily hurt or killed.
At this point, I cannot comprehend that anyone is unclear about the fact that the use of blackface in one’s Halloween costume is absolutely appalling. However, I’m not the first person to explain the history of blackface and highlight its impact on society. Considering the fact that individuals still need a reminder about why blackface is offensive and never okay to use, the message must not be clear enough. According to a Huffington post article, 60% of White Americans think that people should be allowed to wear whatever costume and accessories they wish, regardless of if others find it offensive or not. Even more concerning, 52% of White Americans believe that painting your skin black for Halloween is acceptable. I’ll repeat myself once more. Blackface is never okay and should never be a part of your Halloween costume. It is offensive. It is racist. It does not matter what your intent.Unfortunately, there are many people still using blackface with the same intentions White actors used it in the 1800’s. An example is this pair dressed up as murdered, unarmed Black teen Trayvon Martin and his murderer. The fact that these two individuals decided to parade around in these costumes renders me almost speechless. The smile on the man dressed as a murder as he makes a fake gun with his fingers is among the most nauseating things I have ever had the displeasure of seeing. This image, for me, really embodies why the use of blackface is so absolutely vile. Blackface is one of the tools used to turn the entire Black race into a subhuman commodity. Black people’s identities in this country, in the eyes of White people, are undeniably tied to the way in which White actors portrayed Black people on stage. Society has not been able to move passed the depictions of Black people in those minstrel shows to a place where Black people are simply people and deserving of respect, human rights and the opportunity to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin as Dr. King had wished would one day be a reality. These two men turned a tragedy directly inspired by centuries of dehumanization and commodification of Black people into a costume. What is even more disgusting is that people found this funny and applaudable. People flocked to this pair for Instagram and Facebook photos. There are other people who think the same way those two men do. If these two men and those who applaud them believed that this was socially acceptable and something that they could do without societal condemnation, imagine what they say, think and threaten to do to Black people behind closed doors. These two men probably felt that this costume was the “least racist” thing they could do outside of closed doors. I cannot even imagine what they would be comfortable doing behind closed doors.
Even though I have supplied the history of blackface, shown the sickening costume above and given my personal feelings on the subject, there is bound to be someone reading this or that the reader of this article knows that will say “…but I’m not using blackface in a racist way!”Country singer Jason Aldean blackened his face, wore faux locs and tied a bandana around his head as a part of his Lil Wayne costume in 2015. Many felt that “it was just a costume” and that “Aldean meant no harm”. Aldean released the following statement regarding his costume decision: “In this day and age, people are so sensitive that no matter what you do, somebody is going to make a big deal out of it…Me doing that had zero malicious intent … I get that race is a touchy subject, but not everybody is that way. Media tends to make a big deal out of things. If that was disrespectful to anyone, I by all means apologize. That was never my intention. It never crossed my mind.” All I can say is that Aldean is definitely a part of the aforementioned 52%. Aldean also feels that his use of blackface was not in this alleged “not racist way”. PSA: ALL USE OF BLACKFACE IS RACIST. People also were quick to respond by saying that hatred and maliciousness did not motivate the usage of blackface in this next case.
Despite having a significant amount of people defending her, similar to Aldean, Julianne Hough responded in a different, more preferable way. In 2014 Julianne Houghdecided to dress as the character Crazy Eyes from the hit series “Orange is the New Black.” Hough used blackface as a part of her costume. Hough released a statement stating that “It was never [her] intention to be disrespectful or demeaning…” Just like Aldean and others have said, but she did something else. She acknowledged that her decision to darken her skin was deeply offensive regardless of her intention. Hough apologized again in an interview expressing that it made her “sad” that she was “that dumb,” a much more sincere apology and genuine understanding of why she was offensive.I’ve noticed that there is something people are forgetting in their response to disenfranchised people informing them of their offensive words and behaviors. People are forgetting that though it may not have been your original intent to be offensive or racist, you were. Your actions impacted the physical or mental well-being of another person because of the fact that they were offensive. Sometimes, people’s alleged positive intentions do not arouse a positive response from those on the receiving or viewing end. Whether or not Aldean (or anyone else) wished to be offensive in wearing blackface, he was. It is a shame that he has not internalized that fact. OITNB star Laverne Cox said what many were thinking when she was asked about Hough. Cox told Us that “…it was a shame that [Hough] in this country, that she would wear blackface and not understand the historical implications of that” I’m not sure about Jason Aldean, but I was always taught that if I hurt someone I need to sincerely apologize and never repeat the action that hurt them, whether my actions were malicious or not. Aldean’s response, as well as the 52% of White Americans who see no issue with blackface, needed to sincerely apologize for being so insensitive and socially irresponsible regarding this issue and never wear blackface or be in the company of those who wear it.
If you are reading this article and have never really thought about why blackface is an issue, you need to confront that wrongful thinking, apologize to those you may have offended by voicing these opinions or wearing blackface and never do these things again.Please, do not wear blackface this Halloween. Again, blackface is never okay and should never be a part your Halloween costume. It is offensive. It is racist. It does not matter what your intent. If you were thinking about using it prior to reading this article, I sincerely hope that this changed your mind. If you know anyone thinking about using it, whether they be White, Latino or Asian, please consider sharing this article or an article of your choosing with them. I will rarely ever quote publications like Us Magazine, but in this case, they’re on the right page. When Isla Fisher saw Hough in her Crazy Eyes costume, Fisher told Hough to wipe the blackface off of her face. Us published that “Friends don’t let friends wear offensive Halloween costumes.” Please do not let those around you wear blackface this Halloween or engage in any other offensive behavior, for that matter. Please be more thoughtful in the decisions you make and think about how they will impact people. When thinking about how your actions will impact people, be sure that your idea of people is not just those who look and think like you.Blackface is never okay and should never be a part your Halloween costume. It is offensive. It is racist. It does not matter what your intent.
***Another great article highlighting the fact that blackface is racist is Dear White People: Blackface Is Not Ok Daily Beast regarding an Alabama teacher who dressed up in blackface as Kanye West. There is so much information out there about all social issues, utilize its accessibility.