Why Blackface just won’t go away

It seems this weekend while I was busy learning the fine art of how to become a yoga teacher, the social media world was ablaze with a viral Blackface problem. I wish I could say that I am shocked but I am not. Last year when my now grown up kiddo was slugging away in Northern Wisconsin playing the role of studious college student, I learned that many young, white adults are utterly clueless about how hurtful and dangerous their decision to don blackface could be.

Last fall, my son called home clearly shaken up as he shared with me how he had come across several photos of classmates in various states of blackface, one young lady was even dressed as the Black gymnast Gabby Douglas. To say that my head was spinning was an absolute understatement. My son decided that the matter was egregious enough that the school should be forced to actually address the issue, after all this was happening in 2012. The school failed to see what the big deal was and in the end it was just another case of kids being kids and the pesky person of color being too sensitive. Needless to say, when the kiddo informed me this past summer that he really couldn’t deal with going back to that college to finish his senior year; as much as I wanted him to wrap up his degree, his emotional well-being was more important.

When certain white folks decide that imitation is a twisted form of flattery, it negates the fact that Blackface in the US is rooted in white supremacy and the belief that Blacks are inferior. Blackface is painful and while time moves extra fast these days, we are nowhere near far enough away from America’s legacy of racism to ever don Blackface.

In recent years every Halloween season now seems to bring out hoards of white folks who think Blackface is no big deal but the ugly racist intent lurks beneath the surface, after all, what is funny about dressing up as a murdered Black teenager? Sorry, I fail to see the humor but I do see the bigotry and ignorance.

Well-meaning and well intentioned white folks often express shock and outrage at these horrible incidents. But we need to move beyond shock and outrage and in order to do that, it means that white folks need to start picking up the racial load too. Somewhere along the line it seems the belief sprung up that only people of color (POC) should do the heavy work of eradicating racism; when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. To quote the mission statement of my soon to be new employer “white people have had the power to create and control the institutions that govern the lives of all who live here. This has produced a system of advantage for white people who benefit from unearned privilege at the expense of people of color and damages our collective humanity.”

Living in Maine, I have spent the past 11 years in predominantly white spaces and I know that for many whites, there are few topics more uncomfortable than race. Yet if you think that individual acts of racism are abhorrent, you need to intentionally work to dismantle the system that allows these acts to continue. Many years ago one of first events I attended in graduate school in New Hampshire involved a Halloween party where a white colleague came dressed as a Rastafarian complete dreadlocks. It was uncomfortable and awkward yet no one other than me spoke up, instead my colleagues just nervously chuckled at our dreadlock wig wearing colleague.  I will never forget how powerless and utterly alone I felt and the fact that people later came up and said our classmate was wrong for his choice of costume, never took away from the fact that no one had the courage to publicly speak up and call him out. Racism wears many faces and in the end if affects us all.

I leave you with this clip from a Birth of a Nation, if there is any confusion on why Blackface is wrong.

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2 Comments
  1. October 28, 2013
    • October 28, 2013

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