Here’s the short of it: Wearing blackface is not OK. Don’t do it.
Here, if you need it, is the long of it:
It hurts people. When you wear blackface, you are mocking and dehumanizing other people. You are dismissing their feelings as unimportant. In a none-too-subtle way, you are rewriting history so that the only things that are wrong are the things you say are wrong, and that’s one of the ways we perpetuate bigotry in people and racism in our culture.
It has an ugly origin and history. Blackface is part of our nation’s history of making black people seem less than human. Making black people seem less than human was – and still is – a big part of how we morally and legally justified – and still justify – denying them full citizenship, enslaving them, beating them, whipping them, raping them, buying and selling them, segregating them, fearing them, hating them, lynching them, denying them the right and ability to vote, denying them health care, denying them adequate education, denying them job opportunities, imprisoning them en masse, and shooting them in cold blood.
Blackface and systematic repression are so closely linked that the term “Jim Crow” — the system of rigid anti-black laws in force between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement — is derived from an 1832 blackface minstrel song.
It’s not funny. Claiming that it’s all in fun, it’s a prank, it’s “just a youthful indiscretion” of people who don’t know better, or that it’s part of your creative license* does not make it acceptable. And if humor is your aim, you should know that mocking, dehumanizing and insulting people in a way that perpetuates part of our ugly past just isn’t funny. (*It is impossible to be ironic while being racist, so the irony is lost.)
If you think it is funny, ask yourself “why?” Why do I think it’s funny to do something that hurts others? Why do I think it is funny to traffic in stereotypes that support personal and institutional violence, racism and hundreds of years of gross injustice? Why do I derive pleasure from this? Am I that much of a jerk?
Your intentions are irrelevant. “But I’m not a racist,” you say, “so it’s OK.” Not “feeling” racist when you’re wearing blackface does not change the way it makes other people (of all races) feel, the way it reinforces stereotypes, or the way it perpetuates the degrading idea that it’s OK to mock black people for being black.
Thanks to social media, the effects of your wearing blackface are not limited to the people who are in physical proximity to you. The whole world gets the message you’re sending.
So, if you don’t mean it “in a racist way,” ask yourself: What do I mean by it? Am I hurting others with it? Do I care? That the symbolism of blackface is incendiary, insensitive and racist is an incontrovertible fact. If I don’t care, am I that big of an ass?
“Oh, quit being so sensitive.” No, you quit being so privileged. You don’t get to decide what wounds others. You don’t get to dictate how painful a stereotype is or should be.
The mostly unrecognized half of racism is called white privilege, and when you set yourself up as the final arbiter of what can and cannot hurt non-white people, you’re exercising that privilege. When you feel free to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices, you’re exercising that privilege. When you assert the ability to blame others for being overly sensitive, for “playing the race card,” or for making a the proverbial mountain of a molehill, you are engaging in the white privilege that has long been codified in our culture, our law and our institutions.
White people deciding that objecting to blackface – with its origin in, echo of, and perpetuation of one of our most vile national sins – is being “overly sensitive” is as absurd as it is ugly.
Political correctness. Pointing out racism is not an attempt to limit your political speech, shield others from criticism, or make you feel bad. It’s done to better our society and ourselves. If using good manners and avoiding doing and saying things that we know hurt other people is too much of a constraint on your political expression, you’d do well to re-examine your politics.
Halloween isn’t an excuse t0 reveal your inner bigot. Our society equates being white with “normal,” so non-white people are seen as foreign, weird, frightening, and beneath respect. In short, we still have a lot of bigotry built into our culture.
In addition to blackface, at Halloween, there’s “ghetto fab,” the terrorist in brown face and wearing a ghutra and iqal, the geisha with white powder and slanted eyes, the red-faced and feather-wearing Native American, the a Mexican mariachi suit or donkey costume, and more – each an affront to basic human decency and an expression of the ugliest part of our national soul done for the sake of cheap laughs and Facebook likes from our bigoted or ignorant friends.
And that’s not OK.