Preface: Blackface is short-hand for minstrel shows. A minstrel show was a theatrical production in which caucasian actors would play a stereotyped caricature of a black person. For more in depth information click here.
I have this issue with blackface. There really seems to be no rhyme or reason as to when the black community becomes enraged over blackface. Similarly the arguments I’ve read, seen, and heard regarding what makes blackface so bad have varied wildly in logic and scope. Most of these arguments boil down to “It’s racist to put black paint on your face.” I’ll concede that point whenever the black community determines that every and all case of blackface is racist. No double standards, no exceptions. I can also see the logic of the argument that doubles for the n-word. That is, by taking the act/medium/phrase away from those who used in a racially charged manner you slowly remove the power associated with the act/medium/phrase. It operates very similarly to advice given to children who are called names in school, call yourself the word enough times in wildly different contexts and the world slowly loses the demeaning effect.
Back to the point, the inconsistency of the black community of when to be enraged over blackface seems to undermine the cause of the crusade against it. For instance, in Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr. played a character who dyed his skin black in order to play a black person. And yes, contextually Downey’s character wasn’t meant to mock black people, rather it was used as a vehicle to mock the extremity of a method actor. But at it’s core, Downey was dressed in blackface and no one took offense. Contrast this with Angelina Jolie who played Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. Ethnicity-wise, Mariane Pear is a tan biracial woman; Jolie is of caucasian descent. I personally have not seen the movie but judging by the storyline it was a sober retelling of a tragedy suffered by Mariane Pearl. Most of the outrage over this incident seemed to be constrained to the audacity of Hollywood to cast a caucasian woman in the role of a biracial woman. A more recent incident of public outrage of blackface occurred on the UCI campus. Students from the Asian-American fraternity Lambda Theta Delta posted a video online in imitation of Justin Timberlake’s song “Suit & Tie.” In the video a central student, portraying Justin Timberlake and lip-syncing along, is flanked by two back up dancers; then Jay-Z’s part comes on and a chair swivels around to reveal a fourth student, face painted black, with sunglasses lip-syncing along to Jay-Z’s verse. The video had a caption that amounted to “No racism is intended.”
From those three examples, we have three incidents of non-black persons putting black paint on their face, which in the abstract should universally cause outrage among the black community. Of those examples, two were lambasted; one for outright racism (LTD incident) and the other for discrimination (Jolie incident). The third, which actually had Downey using ebonics and sometimes speaking like a stereotypical black man, seemingly drew no criticism. So, I have a few questions for anyone and everyone who chooses to answer:
- If I wore a black (by black I mean the skin color of most black people) hooded silicon mask devoid of features but had holes for the eyes and mouth is that racist?
- If I paid a Hollywood makeup artist to apply makeup to my face and hair to make me into the most realistic black person s/he can, is that racist?
- If I took Psoralen pills, these pills are/were used to treat Vitiligo (a currently terminal disease that causes the depigmentation of sections of skin) in that they provide pigment to areas that loss pigmentation. Simply put, these pills will turn a white person into a black person (see A Man Changes His Skin Color from White to Black). Is that racist?
- What about a lighter skinned black person applying black paint to portray a darker skinned black person?
- If I wore a transparent silicon mask that stuck to my face via a gel and covered only my face, i.e., went only to the top of my forehead, before my ears, and to my chin and had eye holes and a mouth hole, then painted it black is it racist? What if said mask was already black prior to putting it on is it racist?