Will Blackface be Okay Soon?

Ok… I know what you're thinking…

But bear with me for a moment. This morning I saw a story on CP24 about a vice-principal in Peel Region dressing up as Mr. T for Halloween, blackface and all. Now he's facing disciplinary hearings and all that.

Because, you know, blackface is wrong.

But here's the thing… I'm not sure whether everyone's completely lost track of WHY blackface is wrong and whether ALL instances of using makeup to become a coloured person (Robert Downey Jr. notwithstanding) is, by definition, wrong.

In an interview with one of the high school students, the reaction was, to paraphrase "Well… as a costume it wasn't bad but I think it's wrong to paint your face to be a different race".

The poor kid seemed to know it was WRONG but didn't seem to actually be offended by it or have any idea WHY it might be wrong. It just was.

In his eyes, dressing up as a different race is just wrong, but that's not right. I can dress up as Cheech Marin for Halloween and nobody is going to reprimand me for pretending to be Latino. Asians aren't gonna be pissed if I dress up as Bruce Lee.

So what's so wrong about dressing up as Mr. T?? Mr. T is badass. Mr. T is a good role model. Mr. T is not a negative black stereotype. So what's wrong with dressing up like Mr. T?

My argument is that NOTHING is wrong with dressing up like Mr. T. Does this mean that I condone blackface? No. I just think people have lost track of what the heck "blackface" really is.

If you paint your face black to perpetuate negative stereotypes like a travelling minstrel show, then THAT'S RACIST!!

But Mr. T? This is not the same thing!!! So what's it gonna take to get society to understand this?

People should learn some history.

2 thoughts on “Will Blackface be Okay Soon?”

  1. While I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment: there's nothing inherently wrong with dressing up like someone from another race — especially in light of the fact that the cultural context for why blackface is "wrong" becomes less and less relevant as time wears on — you have to acknowledge that there's absolutely no reason that the vice-principal in question would've had to apply "black" make-up to come across as Mr. T. It's analogous to dressing up in the quintessential Bruce Lee jumpsuit and wearing yellow make-up. The make-up becomes extraneous and raises the question of why the person in the costume thought it was necessary. In either case, it's not.

    But yes, there's a big difference between applying skin-darkening make-up and looking like the stereotypical (and cartoonish) blackface. Just as there's a big difference between applying yellow make-up and squinting your eyes while wearing a rice paddy hat and a Fu Manchu moutasche. The intent in the first case is clearly more about trying to achieve some measure of authenticity whereas the latter reinforces racial stereotypes.

    Bear in mind, however, that our culture is largely appropriated from the United States, where slavery was a much larger and divisive issue than it was here and that there's going to be more racial rights sensitivity occurring there as a result. While I wouldn't be offended by someone trying to look authentically like Mr. T, pick the guy up and take him to Georgia and you're dealing with a very different cultural scenario. Currently, society's answer to this sort of mentality seems to be to issue blanket statements like, "Blackface is wrong." It's a flawed response, but it's the best one we've got at the moment.

  2. Yeah… I agree with all of that. We had a discussion about it at lunch yesterday and the very valid point came up that you can certainly get across the image of Mr. T without the face paint.

    That said though, going for authenticity shouldn't be considered offensive or racist.

    Again… I understand why it's still wrong. I'm hoping that in time it will become less so. It just shouldn't matter anymore, and when we get to that point the world will be a better place for it. 🙂

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