Dismantling Blackface as a Form of Social Comedy
The Connection Between Halloween and Blackface
All Hallows Eve is upon us. It’s a holiday when both adults and children can wear costumes to assume the identity of celebrities, athletes, popular characters, etc. However, due to the expanding influence of social consciousness, there has been a proverbial line drawn in the sand to separate acts of festivity from acts of intolerance and ignorance. Every Halloween, people are reminded that there is a difference between offensive and inoffensive costumes, and every year someone learns a harsh lesson about inappropriate costume choices.
The most recent mention of the difference between offensive and inoffensive halloween costumes came from the rebuke of Megan Kelly, the host of NBC’s Megan Kelly Today show. During the October 23rd segment of the show, Kelly stated that "You…get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a Black person who puts on white face for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay." The problem with rationalizing current behavior with things that were socially acceptable in the early 1970s (When Megan Kelly was a kid) is that things like the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” and anti-desegregation groups like Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) were considered to be socially acceptable. Nowadays it should be obvious that racist and prejudiced actions are not acceptable at all.
Why Is Blackface Racist?
The reason why blackface is racist and inappropriate is because it perpetuates the offensive 19th Century tradition of minstrel performances. A minstrel show typically involved white actors darkening their entire faces so they could portray offensive caricatures of Black people. Blackface performers portrayed Black people as superstitious, lazy, farcical, and ignorant.
Blackface was bred from a culture of racial hatred, and what Frederick Douglass referred to as “corrupt taste.” The performance style gained popularity during the postbellum period which, according to the Smithsonian, was a time “when antebellum stereotypes collided with actual African Americans and their demands for full citizenship, including the right to vote.” The performance tradition of blackface led to the creation of the Jim Crow caricature. The legacy of Jim Crow still haunts the U.S.
Following Kelly's eventual apology, blackface's connections to minstrel shows and Jim Crow era prejudice were explained to Kelly during a live segment of her show with acclaimed journalists, Ronald S. Martin and Amy Holmes. The journalists used the opportunity as a “teachable moment” to discuss and further flesh-out the difference between participating in a festive holiday tradition and perpetuating racial stereotypes.
This is a lesson that several individuals have had to learn. Take Brock Denton for example. Denton was a student at the University of Central Arkansas, and his actions in 2016 led to the suspension of his fraternity, Sigma Tau Gamma. Or consider the case of the first grade teacher who dressed in blackface for a Halloween costume party. That teacher is currently being investigated for her actions, and the results could determine the fate of her job. These examples of people facing severe consequences are common knowledge. There is no excuse for engaging in blackface.This Halloween season, be fun and festive, but also be mindful of your costume choices. When in doubt, an internet search can help you determine whether or not a costume is offensive.