Explaining the Outrage of Blackface

By now, we have all seen the headlines.

Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam first apologized but subsequently denied being one of two men, one in blackface, the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe/hood, prominently featured on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. While he denied being either individual in the image, he did admit to wearing shoe polish on his face to darken his skin to portray Michael Jackson in a dance contest.

Italian fashion brand Gucci announced a major push to step up diversity hiring as a part of a long-term strategy to build cultural awareness at the luxury fashion company following an uproar over an $890 sweater that resembles blackface.

Several celebrities — Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, Ted Danson, and Jimmy Fallon — are under fire for their views on or poor judgment donning blackface.

Once considered acceptable stage makeup, blackface went the way of the N-word in terms of igniting controversy. At this point, we all should know that wearing blackface is offensive and wrong, but where does this practice originate from, and why is it so offensive?

During the early 19th century, minstrel shows became a popular form of entertainment. These shows were performed by white traveling musicians who caricatured the language, singing, and dancing of the black community, using burnt cork or shoe polish to paint their faces black. Performances typically characterized black people as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice. Performances were so popular that actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as the “Father of Minstrelsy,” toured the world with his Jump Jim Crow shows throughout the 1800s. At one point, even black performers of the time needed to wear blackface to entertain audiences because white patrons were interested in watching black actors portray mockery of themselves on stage. The performances were intended to be funny to white audiences, however, to the black community, even at the time, they were demeaning and hurtful.

It is important to clarify that wearing blackface is not simply the act of putting on black makeup, but as Merriam-Webster notes, it includes acting out “exaggerated and inaccurate caricatures of black people.”

Throughout the 20th century, blackface gained popularity. New media showed minstrel performances on the stage, radio, television, and in movie theaters. One of the top actresses of the 1930s, Judy Garland, starred in Everybody Sing wearing blackface just one year before the Oscar award-winning movie, The Wizard of Oz, was released. At this stage in America’s history, blackface was popular, widespread, and applauded in pop culture of the time.

While many are now aware of its racist and harmful history, the blackface controversy still persists. A recent Pew Research Center study determined that about a third of Americans think that blackface is “always or sometimes acceptable” as a Halloween costume. In 2018, talk show host Megyn Kelly defended the use of blackface in Halloween costumes on air. She eventually lost her show on NBC because of her comments but claimed ignorance as an excuse, which is ultimately the same rationale the Governor of Virginia is using in his defense. He not only refuses to resign from his role, as several dignitaries have called on him to do, but he also has yet to discuss how his views on race have evolved since he self-admittedly wore blackface in the 1980s. This demonstrates that while there are consequences for participating in blackface today, we are still not at a point where people understand the horrible history attached to its origin.

Perhaps David Leonard, chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender, and race studies, said it best. In the excerpt below from his 2012 Huffington Post essay, “Just Say No To blackface: Neo Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize,” he explains why wearing and performing blackface is so offensive:

“Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments those that describe these offensive acts as pranks, ignorance and youthful indiscretions. Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes…the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries’ worth of injustice.”