Black Face: The Worst Form of Appropriation

In the midsts of the 1800s, blackface entertainment took New York by storm. White comedians would paint their faces with burnt cork, greasepaint, or shoe polish, wear curly hair pieces and pretend they were black people. The black people they played were portrayed as silly, ignorant, slow, and wild or uncivilized. Blackface was popular in movies, radio shows, and television; Birth of a Nation (1915), Shirley Temple: The Littlest Rebel (1935), and the Amos ‘N’ Andy Show (1929). The characterization of black people became the normal stereotype that many white Americans believed to be true. The relevance of blackface in the twenty first century; it is still being done and many white Americans believe it isn’t a problem. White people have participated in blackface in recent years for a holiday favorite, Halloween. For some, Halloween is considered an acceptable occasion for blackface while others argue that it is never acceptable to participate in the degradation of African Americans and privilege is the reason it hasn’t been treated as a hate crime.

Halloween of 2016, college student Drew Parker dressed up as African American rapper Lil’ Wayne. He painted his face and body chocolate brown, drew tattoos on his body, and wore fake dreadlocks claiming he just “really wanted a badass costume” (Manny Brown, https://extranewsfeed.com, 2016). Parker was on his way to a frat house costume party when the police stopped him. The police ended up stopping him three times total to racially profile him. Parker explained that dealing with the police was hard on him. Being stopped forced him to hide his marijuana, put on his seatbelt and use Listerine strips to mask the smell of alcohol he’d had earlier in the day (Brown, https://extranewsfeed.com, 2016). Unlike African Americans Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, Drew Parker survived his “run-in” with the police. When officers discovered Parker was white he was treated with less hostility and even offered escort.

Drew Parker blackface costume on Halloween 2016

Manny Brown considers Parker ignorant and disrespectful. In his article, White Kid in Blackface Racially Profiled on Way to Halloween Frat Party (2016), Brown suggests Parker ignored “all virtues of respect and common decency [when he] decided to put on blackface for Halloween (Brown).” The article also tells of how some of Parker’s fellow students felt racial profiling should be banned around Halloween “to make sure white students can culturally appropriate minorities safely (Brown, 2016).” Most of Brown’s commenters agree that Parker should not be able to get away with this hate crime. Followers thought the article was satire because of the obvious backwardness of police morale. Anyone who puts on the skin when it is not theirs is a blackface performer. Frederick Douglass, African American abolitionist of the nineteenth century believed “Blackface performers are… the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens (Frederick Douglass 1848).” No one who wears the skin should get to opt out of being the skin.

Others, predominately white Americans, believed Parker was just having harmless fun. Parker’s mother complained:

This is an outrage. My child should be treated with respect no matter who he dresses up like. Dressing up as a black man does not mean you should be treated like one! If a police officer can’t tell the difference between a real black man and a white college kid having fun, then maybe they shouldn’t wear that badge. (Brown)

The agreeing party thought Parker should be able to dress up black and still have his privilege protect him. Parker says “Some people make a big deal about stuff like this, but they’re typically minorities and women, and they make a big deal about everything, so I was just like whatever (Brown).” Minorities and Women did not have a voice for many years in matters of American history so to the agreeing party it seems minorities and women always have something from the past to be upset about. In 1828 when comedian Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” covered his skin in burnt cork, dressed himself in a raggedy suit and went on stage to jump around and perform “Jump Jim Crow”, it was just harmless fun. Comedians needed material and white America needed entertainment. Creation of the Silly Zip Coon, Loyal Mammy, Savage Brute, Tragic Mulatto, and Watermelon Munchin’ Pikaninny stereotypes just happened to fall into place. Slaves could get offended and their lineage could have to fight to break stereotypes forever but they’re opinions didn’t matter so, “like whatever.”

blackface pikaninny stereotype

In Julia Craven’s Article Here’s a Reminder Not to Wear Blackface This Halloween (Or Ever) (2016), a light is shined on how many Americans believe its okay to wear blackface for costume. In a HuffPost/YouGov survey “60 percent of white Americans think people should wear whatever they want on Halloween, even if others find it offensive… and… 52 percent think that painting your skin black for Halloween is just fine (Craven).” The article was a background on the history of blackface. It was meant to educate those who were unaware of what blackface really means before they picked their Halloween costume. The 2015 survey reveals that most feel Halloween is the time to ignore our history of discrimination. Halloween is a holiday and shouldn’t be restricted because white people have the opportunity to be offensive.

Nicki Minage blackface costume

Blackface is in fact, completely offensive no matter the occasion. To participate in blackface is to agree and support 19th century stereotypes created on black people. Drew Parker was without a doubt disrespectful. He followed an old, hateful tradition and believed he had the right to do so without consequence. It is unfair that Drew Parker or any individual would demand the right to be safely racist. He suffered no punishments and was even rewarded for his behavior. The complaints of Parker and his mother even got an apology. The Police department claimed “We made a mistake. We took racial profiling too far this time, and because of it an innocent white kid could have been harmed, and for that, we’re truly sorry (Brown, 2016).” The only apology in this case should have been from the police department to the minority families who lost loved ones to police brutality. The stereotypes birthed by blackface represent black people as violent, dumb, and unruly. These are the stereotypes that cause police to kill and they called Parker innocent. It’s almost comical that a kid practicing the most hurtful tradition to African American reputation encouraged by slave owners was even thought of as innocent… almost.

Mockery of African Americans, especially for celebration is in no way “harmless fun”. Blackface is the worst form of cultural appropriation and racism. It fuels to the stigma that black people are ignorant, amongst other offensive assumptions and should in no way be tolerated in the supposed socially justice 2010s. So many white Americans being okay with blackface depending on circumstance means that many those same Americans believe it is okay period. If blatant degradation of any race is considered acceptable every time someone wants to play dress up, what’s to stop that kind of ignorance for years to come? No costume or game of any sort makes it okay for white people to revert back to the ways of their slave owning ancestors.

Blackface is wrong, just as racism and hate crimes are wrong. It is just as ignorant as Drew Parker’s Lil’ Wayne Halloween costume to believe hate crimes are comical or innocent fun. I would even go as far to say thinking blackface is okay is down right stupid. No intelligent, self aware human being should encourage hate crimes of any sort, or use white privilege as a weapon against police rather than a tool to fight racism. Blackface is outdated and should have died off with the rest of the oppressive 1800s.