The season of Halloween is here, and many of us are nervous for reasons unrelated to fun and harmless spooks. The real horror lies in the inevitable donning of Blackface by White people and non-Black people of color. It seems that every year around this time — and sometimes during other parts of the year, since many elected officials had a habit of doing Blackface in their college days — we need to have the conversation about how painting your face Black is incredibly violent and offensive, due to its historical context and the simple truth that Black identity and culture is not an outfit.
Black identity and culture is not an outfit.
Blackface, the act of a non-Black person painting their face dark with paint or makeup to achieve the look of a Black person, is historically rooted in minstrel shows, which began during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Part anti-Black propaganda and part entertainment for White audiences, minstrelsy included plays and eventually films wherein White actors wearing Blackface depicted caricatures of Black people in a variety of ways: lazy, supernaturally skilled at sports and dancing, unintelligent and hyperaggressive.
Black women were paradoxically portrayed in Blackface as mammies (large, unattractive caretakers of White children) or were hypersexualized with large breasts and butts. These minstrel shows served to confirm White supremacy through stereotyping Black people and encouraging anti-Black racism, especially in the South, where Whites struggled to mentally maintain their sense of superiority after Black people were freed from slavery.
A classic example of Blackface in media is, perhaps, the most racist film in America and, coincidentally, the longest and most expensive film of its time: D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” The 1915 film was the first movie ever screened at the White House, which happened during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. The film paints a picture of the raging Reconstruction-era South in which Blacks are thugs and sexual predators. The heroes — the KKK — gallantly ride through towns capturing the sick, vengeful criminals to restore peace to downtrodden former slave owners and save the helpless White women.
Despite the glaring racism and clear motivations for why breakthrough cinematic techniques and resources were used to make this film in particular, “The Birth of a Nation” is viewed by modern popular critics as “controversial” at best. (Seriously, some popular, modern, White film critics have praised this film for its ingenuity.)
The disturbing and distorted stereotypes of Black people in “The Birth of a Nation,” as well as in local minstrel shows, stoked the fury of Southern Whites, paving the way for lynchings of Black men in the South into the Jim Crow era, mostly for perceived injustices against White women.
And of course, many of the caricatures of Black people are alive and well to this day.
It’s important to know that, like all incidents of racism, incidents of Blackface don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a long, deadly history behind the trend of Blackface that continues to inform the ways in which Black people are allowed to live and die in this country. Stereotypes derived from Blackface have had lasting implications, ranging from how Black people receive health care (because we are perceived to feel less pain than White people) to being murdered on the streets by police and neighborhood “vigilantes” for being perceived as inherently hyperaggressive.
To make a mockery of our existence for your own fun is simply no longer acceptable. Every incident of Blackface is violence, whether perpetrated through ignorance or the idea that someone else’s racialized identity is a fun thing to appropriate without consequence.
Every incident of Blackface is violence, whether perpetrated through ignorance or the idea that someone else’s racialized identity is a fun thing to appropriate without consequence.
And it doesn’t just happen on Halloween; many Instagram influencers and pop stars have digitally (by creating a “hood” persona) or literally put on Blackface to align themselves with Blackness without the danger and disadvantage that comes with actually being Black.
The number of people who either miss this conversation we have every year or do Blackface anyway is not only a matter of privilege. It’s a matter of White supremacy.
Now that you know, in addition to not doing Blackface, Redface (dressing as an Indigenous person) or Yellowface (dressing as an Asian person) this year, have a conversation with someone about minstrelsy and the violent history of Blackface in America.
I guarantee at least one person will be surprised.
Bri Little is a writer and works for a local nonprofit. She is from Washington, D.C. She has published a book of poetry, has a novel in the works and occasionally writes for the South Seattle Emerald.
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