Monday, October 28, 2013

Let's Define "Blackface"



Before I start, I feel that I should inform you that I'm "white." I put that color in quotes because my skin isn't really the color of a cloud or a marshmallow (though its consistency may be like one of those two things -- I need to work out more). My skin is more of a peach-ish, orange-ish, pink-ish hue. However, my race shouldn't be an issue here. After all, if you're going to dismiss my opinion based solely on the color of my skin, that kind of makes you racist, doesn't it?

I bring this up because recently Julianne Hough has been accused of racism because she appeared in "blackface" for her Halloween costume. Here's a picture:

Now, I don't really follow Ms. Hough's career that much (I hear she dances and sings), but I find it interesting that people are considering this costume to be racially offensive. She was just using some makeup to look like one of her favorite characters from a TV show, who happens to be black. Here's a picture of the character she was trying to look like:

Now, I don't really follow Orange is the New Black that much (I hear there's dancing and singing), but if Julianne Hough is dressing up as Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren, why shouldn't she try to match the skin tone of the character? If she didn't, Ms. Hough would spend the evening explaining who she was to each person at the party because no one would really get it. After all, Hough is a blond-haired, blue-eyed white girl. She was just trying to match the TV character (played by Uzo Aduba) as much as she possibly could.

Hough has since apologized for her costume, but did she really need to? If I was going as Conan O'Brien for Halloween, for example, I would probably apply some translucent white makeup to lighten my skin and I'd probably also wear an orange wig. I doubt anyone (including the Irish) would call that racist. So why would it be considered racist to darken my skin a little to match that of a character I'm trying to emulate? Furthermore, would it have been considered racist if Hough had worn a "Crazy Eyes" mask instead of using makeup?

To me, Julianne's costume is not blackface. It's just makeup for a costume. It wasn't done with the intent to offend or satirize the African American community, it was done to match a character on TV. It's not a great costume, but it's also not a racist one.

You know what I think blackface is? Here's a picture:

To me, this is a sloppy and, frankly, offensive way of portraying the skin of those with African heritage. Back in the day, actors would slather on the black makeup and then add a white mouth during vaudeville shows and films. Blackface was done as a satirical stereotype of an entire race and was a pretty bad idea in the first place, in my opinion.

Let's jump back to today, shall we?

That picture is from a 2013 Dunkin' Donuts ad in Thailand about a dark chocolate doughnut. Now, I am unable to read the Thai language, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the text doesn't say "I am a generalization of the African people, and I like doughnuts." No, this advertisement shows a chocolate-covered doughnut held by a chocolate-covered person. It has nothing to do with race. And yet some Americans still clamored that this ad was racist. They yelled "BLACKFACE!" and demanded that the ads be taken down because they were so offensive. Unless "Chocolate-covered Doughnut People" is an existing race on the World Census, this should not be considered racism and it should not be considered blackface.

But that's not to say that people don't do blackface in modern times.

That picture is of Ted Danson. For those of you who don't know who Ted Danson is, he was a famous TV star who only really made one successful venture into the movie world with Three Men and a Baby. Anyway, in 1993 he appeared at Whoopi Goldberg's roast, admittedly, in blackface. But for some reason Ms. Goldberg was fine with it (note her approving face in that picture). And when the media got after Mr. Danson, she defended him, saying she had helped write Danson's "comedic" material, and even referred Danson to the makeup artist who painted his face. Danson and Goldberg (which would be a good name for a law firm) also dismissed the accusations by saying that these types of roasts were intended to offend and shock people. This is blackface, but apparently it's an excused example of blackface.

Here's another example I'd like to discuss:

That picture depicts a group of fans painting themselves the color of their favorite sports team, which happens to be black. As far as I can tell, those girls have no racial agenda with that makeup. If fans of the Dallas Cowboys painted their skin silver, would that be considered racist? Perhaps they would be showing racism against the robot race? Should this be considered blackface? No.

Here is one final example of actual blackface, and, I need to warn you, this is offensive on a number of levels:

That is a picture of a guy smearing black makeup on his face, and fake blood on his hoodie to portray Trayvon Martin. He and his buddy apparently chose a "couple's costume" for this Halloween party. The girl is the middle is just clueless. If she realized how offensive and wrong this costume was, she wouldn't be standing between those two idiots and smiling. This is when people should get offended. This is racist. This is wrong. This is blackface.

It doesn't make sense to call that final, terrible, example of blackface "blackface" and call Julianne Hough's costume "blackface" in the same breath. The motives behind and implementations of each costume are completely different. People need to stop crying "BLACKFACE!" when it's not actually blackface. The more you throw around that term, the less power it has when it should actually be used.

So, faithful readers, let's recap what we've learned today:
  1. Using makeup to look like a famous actor/character, or painting yourself your team's colors is not blackface. 
  2. Smearing black paint on your face with the intention to portray a stereotyped caricature of an entire race is blackface.
  3. I need to work out more.
Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.


Zeng said...

Interstingly...I think you nail it better...

The Former 786 said...

Thanks, Zeng! I appreciate that.