While the general American public might steer away from the more uncomfortable parts of history, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that history is happening all around us. Particularly, in terms of race, pressing issues include police brutality, progressively growing white nationalism, and growing social movements such as Black Lives Matter. In terms of racism, reinforcement of current social norms perpetuates their continued existence. When institutionalized racism is still so prominent in the U.S., considering every issue, in this instance blackface, is crucial.
Why it’s offensive
Blackface was born from offensive American minstrelsy performances that began in the 19th century. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), minstrelsy was the practice of using burnt cork and shoe polish to cover the face, and it was popular from the end of the Civil War and the turn-of-the-century. It capitalized on white performers impersonating enslaved Africans based on stereotypical physical features and negative personal traits such as being “lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice.” By nature, this humor was based on dehumanizing an entire group of already oppressed people, and it wasn’t limited to one particular area. Indeed, NMAAHC lists relevant American actors Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney who wore blackface, further perpetuating stereotypes and racial parody tied to the minstrelsy industry. These stereotypes intersected with and overshadowed the Civil Rights movement, making effecting change even harder for activists. As NSU Public Divisions Director Mara Kiffin, who is also chair of the African Presence Organizing Committee and Chair of the Black History Month Committee, said, “blackface is rooted in racism and everybody who’s black knows that, and everybody who’s racist knows that.”
With black representation being limited to stereotypes, NMAAHC mentions that genuine African and African-American culture was both lost and ignored. Languages, traditions and value of black Americans were ignored and intentionally painted over, and each black person’s right to individuality was largely put on the back burner.
Kiffin explored how this is still pertinent today. “When something bad happens on TV, I guarantee most black people say, ‘I hope it wasn’t a black person’ because immediately, a lot of us feel as if as soon as someone black does something bad, everybody is thrown under the blanket.”
Who’s still doing it
In the past few weeks, two politicians in Virginia and two in Florida have admitted or been revealed to have worn black face in their pasts. In Florida, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini wore black face when he and his friend Brandon Evans dressed as each other for homecoming week. Sabatini has defended his actions, saying they were taken out of context and that “it wasn’t an issue then, and it wasn’t an issue now.” On the other hand, Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned after less than three weeks when a picture of him in black face as a Hurricane Katrina victim resurfaced.
Kiffing touched on these contrasting responses, one admitting responsibility and one denying the issue, when she said, “We have all done things in our youth that we regret. We can claim ignorance or stupidity, and we may be sorry, but sometimes that’s not enough. Often there are severe consequences that we have to face. In the political arena, that may mean stepping down from office because the people’s trust is lost. It doesn’t matter that you were young and ignorant. You did it, and I can’t look at you the same way because maybe that’s how you really feel about people of color.”
What to do
Considering what implications blackface has had and still has for black Americans and how our society views race, it is crucial to look at the issue through a critical lens. A huge part of critical thinking is being armed with knowledge, so when these issues occur in politics, educating yourself is necessary. Kiffin said, “They don’t talk about blackface in school anymore. You have to basically do your own research to find out these things.” Therefore, bringing awareness to issues of oppression such as blackface is necessary for progress.