Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Blackface: Yeah, that's pretty offensive

It’s nearly Halloween, and that can mean only one thing: blackface!

That’s what it seems like lately, anyway. Two instances of blackface have made news recently, one much more horrible than the other (though both were pretty awful).

Actress Julianne Hough turned in one of her lesser performances at a Halloween party this past week, dressing as a black character from the show Orange is the New Black (a title with no racial connotations, which is why this blog isn’t a thousand words longer).

I doubt Hough is racist. Stupid, maybe. Hers isn’t the blackface of 1880s vaudeville, but it is still a costume with an unfavorable upshot-to-outcry ratio. I’ve never seen Orange is the New Black, but I know the character Julianne represented is nicknamed “Crazy Eyes.” From that linked video, Crazy Eyes appears to be someone who could become a caricature in Uzo Aduba’s hands, let alone when mocked by whites. Julianne should have known to leave that one alone.

But OK. Maybe Hough thought she was just being realistic to the character’s appearance. Still a stupid choice that should been averted at any point in the obviously extensive planning and application processes, but she did offer a seemingly sincere apology. And hers is hardly the worst blackface we’ve seen this week. That dubious honor goes to this team costume, which might sweep every category in the Most Offensive Halloween Costume of All Time Awards:

Including Worst Actor, Worst Costume Design, Worst Makeup, Worst Supporting Actress and Worst Picture.
If these guys were on a Comedy Central show as an example of the worst Halloween costume ever, being presented as satirical specimens of how low humanity can go and getting a massive, well-deserved comeuppance at the end, it would still be hard to laugh at this. Regardless of where one stands on the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman confrontation, who on Planet Earth would think it’s funny to dress up as the overzealous watchman and the blood-stained, unarmed, dead teenager?

And that’s not even taking into account the blackface that would probably compel Al Jolson to ask that guy to tone it down a bit.

Blackface is rooted in stage shows from past centuries where whites painted their faces black (usually with exaggerated lips) to portray blacks as buffoons. It carries that connotation still and, most likely, always will. To the extent that it crops up in entertainment today, it’s to highlight how horrible it is. (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Sarah Silverman Program feature inspired examples of this.) That satiric subtext requires a very specific context and setting, and that setting is never a party.

Halloween costumes generally aspire to be one or any combination of scary, funny and/or clever. By definition, a Halloween costume is something we wear to be something other than what we are — to be scary, funny and/or clever. When you make someone’s race the focus of your costume, you’re implying you view that race to fit those qualities. That it’s on the same plane as a pirate, a leprechaun, a goblin or sexy corn. Something other than normal. And that's truly disturbing.

“But Ian, you own White Chicks on DVD!”

Yes, I know. Shameful.

“Are you going to indict the Wayans brothers for their reverse racism? After all, they dressed in whiteface!”

First of all, the plot of the film is that they take the place of two white socialites, so they’re in full-body latex. And rather than mock white people, they actually can’t help being themselves, which is much of the point. A very different situation than blackface, which is also true of Eddie Murphy’s iconic turn as a white guy on SNL. In fact, there are few, if any, instances I’ve ever seen where minorities equivalently attack whites as whites did to them in pre-PC times.

Part of that is because they can’t. And the reason why is the same reason we don’t have things like White History Month and the Congressional White Caucus: because the power structure in America has always been white.

You could argue that it’s in poor taste for any ethnic group to bash another. But it’s especially vicious for whites — the group that has historically held all the cards and often played them brutally — to mock the groups that they oppressed (or worse). Humor that comes at the expense of the bullied is funny only to a select group of terrible people.

So I’m sympathetic when someone says they’re offended by a caricature. Whether it’s something blindingly obvious like blackface or something that requires more introspection, my response is never to “lighten up.” That increasingly seems to be the chorus of those who don’t want to think about these issues in the first place. It might be a while indeed before we work through these issues and define these boundaries in a way that accommodates everyone’s sensitivities.

But if that goal is the summit of this particular mountain, then blackface has to be the bottom of a trench at the base. Or the ocean floor. Maybe the core of the Earth. Somewhere we should be way, way, way above by now.

Get climbing.

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