We’ll get this part out of the way: The use of blackface is inherently racist.
That being said, the issue calls for deeper examination, considering that the recently concluded Halloween celebrations have once again brought us a slew of stories about people painting their faces black in a case of misbegotten cultural appropriation. The most notable of these is a University of Oregon law professor who dressed in blackface for a party. Outraged ensued, and the professor has been placed on leave by university officials.
“The use of blackface, even in jest at a Halloween party, is patently offensive and reinforces historically racist stereotypes,” university president Michael Schill said in a statement. “It was a stupid act and is in no way defensible.”
And yet the professor — and others who don blackface in a wayward attempt at what they perceive to be humor — has some defenders. There are those who decry what they believe is overt political correctness that serves to slam a door on free speech. But therein lies a problem: While free speech dictates that a holiday reveler has every right to dress in blackface if they wish, it also dictates that said reveler should not be impervious to criticism. This is not a matter of political correctness; it is simply a matter of correctness.
That is because the origin of blackface is indisputably racist. Used in minstrel shows beginning in the 1830s by white actors wishing to mimic shuffling, shiftless blacks or, as AmericanHistoryUSA.com puts it, “the happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation,” blackface was designed to reinforce stereotypes.
To belie suggestions that such stereotypes have no impact upon audiences of today, we direct doubters to a 2013 quote about blacks from Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson: “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” Or a quote from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who in 2014 said: “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” This coming from a man who stole government subsidies for decades.
The absurdity of both quotes is self-evident. And yet it reflects a way of thinking that was tapped into by Donald Trump during the presidential election as he unearthed millions of acolytes. So, to state the obvious, black people in America were not better off as slaves, and it is essential to challenge such thinking when it is encountered.
In anticipation of Halloween this year, author Lawrence Ross penned an article for TheRoot.com under the headline, “Blackface on College Campuses Isn’t About Freedom of Speech; It’s About White Supremacy,” in which he noted that defenders of blackface try to mitigate the issue by heralding freedom of speech “as though the Bill of Rights were a ‘Get Out of Racism’ card to be played.” No, the Bill of Rights is more powerful than that; it also gives people who long for a stronger, better America the right to call out the racists and challenge their offensive behavior.
It is frustrating, yet not surprising, that we still are dealing with racial insensitivity in this country. And, yes, there are more important racial issues than how a professor or numerous frat boys dress up for Halloween. But the issue is one that provides a rather simple opportunity for improving race relations in this country.
That opportunity? To recognize that blackface is offensive in any circumstance.