Obsessions with Blackness or Black-face?

Trayvon blackface

Within the past ten years, as the prevalence of social media was ascending, it provided a unique opportunity for America to look into the secret closets of middle and upper class white American youth.  A small peak into the closets revealed skeletons of the worse regard: this demographic, often enrolled in top-tier colleges were dressing in blackface at campus parties.  These parties over the years have been hosted by all-white enclaves and what’s happened is that it gets posted on a social networking site–and goes viral.

I’ve yet to figure out just exactly what has been the purpose of blackface throughout the years.  There’s a myriad of writings that have attempted to get at the root of a culture norm that states this is socially acceptable.  Be it under the guise of minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th century to now with college aged students painting their faces and varying colors of brown and black just to post on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, there’s just something inherently obsessive about it.

While most in the black and brown communities of this country can easily point out avenues of white privilege, isn’t it ironic that there are almost no records of blacks ever participating in white face.  Whether to mock or ridicule, the collective historical reason for whites donning black face is still yet a mystery.  Is it en vogue?  Maybe.  Regardless of the reasons why, be it a prank, be it for cool points on Halloween, putting on blackface in 2013 will get you publicly flogged in YouTube diaries, the equivalent of hate mail will be tweeted on your account and posted in comments below your Instagram picture.   We do know that it is socially acceptable, that’s where my point of departure and intersection of pissivity of the highest level come together.

What’s disturbing for me isn’t the deep-seated racial past that’s behind black face; there’s no need to recount the storied past as dozens of writers have already done in the days leading up to Halloween, no, what’s most troubling to me is that there pockets of white communities masquerading as suburbanites or members of middle class urban enclaves, or even as the sons and daughters of rich white millionaires who are simply okay with this.  These very same young people could be singing in their church’s youth group worship band, or volunteering with their Greek-letter organization on the weekends at the local Red Cross or homeless shelter, but refuse to connect the dots between what they do and who they claim to be.

blackface2For the two young girls who wanted to “be niggers” for Halloween disturbs me, not just because of the social acceptability of it, nor just their blind sense of impunity in doing it, but this wanting to be [a] nigger pushes me beyond pale.  There exists this unnatural, I daresay primal, tension in those that occupy the color of the power structure wanting to be what they joke about and consider harmless.  In the case of these high schoolers and college-aged students that participate in this yearly ritual of donning blackface, at this point, I can’t even pass them off as ignorant.  As NPR’s Codeswitch team pointed out, this is the same stuff, just a different year.  Every year around this time, the stories are reported on national outlets about people losing their jobs over this foolishness, yet every year people do it.  Almost as if the thrill of being someone else is worth it–because they didn’t really do anything wrong, did they?  It’s almost as if it’s an obsession.

While no one was physically hurt in any of these cases, what does it say about a national conscience that allows this to happen year in and year out.  I’ve never put on makeup on my face except one or two times as kid when I probably got my face painted, and since I’ve never run across a photo in a photo album (yep, my family photos are in a photo album, not stored in a computer file or my FB profile page) I may actually have never had makeup touch my face.  Let alone smear an all-white applique to it.  So, again, how does the process go?  A white girl walks up to the Mac counter in Macy’s and finds a brown makeup and says “Give me that color” and goes home and smears it all over?  Or is this going into a party store and just grabbing a whole tube of “BROWN” with the thought in mind “I want to be a nigger for Halloween” this year?

I’m just curious.

I’ve never wanted to be white.  I’ll admit, around seventh and eighth grade I went through my stage of wishing I was a bit lighter, wishing my hair was just a bit more curly and that was at the height of the colored contact phase in which I wished my eyes were a honey-colored brown or (yikes!) even hazel.  Why?  Because I grew up around a lot of blacks on the South Side of Chicago who obviously placed a higher value on those physical traits.  None of the girls ever talked about the boy with the nappy hair and how great it would be to play in their hair; none of the girls ever talked about how pretty the eyes were of the boy who had the dark brown–more or less black–eyes that 95% of people have.  Nope.  There was privilege in having genetic traits more associated with that of Europeans.  Simple as that.

But I still never wanted to be white.  I was quite clear I was black, and appreciated it as such.  So, again, to read on some young girls’ Twitter page they wanted to “be niggers” on a dress-up holiday is stunning.  Still even into the next week as I write this, I’m still stunned as such an ignorant, yet highly revealing admission on their behalf.

Darrel HammondHowever, our history of blackface, and dare I bring up ontological blackness as well, is muddied with inconsistencies in all facets of the racial spectrum that can lead to some confusion.  Let me bring up one contrapuntal example of my own:  I seriously think Darrell Hammond of Saturday Night Live fame gave a side-splitting impression of Jesse Jackson during his tenure on the show.  I’ll never forget it was during the 2000 election, just around the time my mother had started letting me watch the show (given some of the raunchy comedy it was known for), and I remember me and mother both cringed as we saw Darrell wheel out to the Weekend Update desk in black brownface, but my God today!  I remember the delivery of the lines from 13 years ago like it was yesterday: it was just damn funny!

But I think therein lies the difference, the pure unadulterated intent.  No, I don’t want to be greeted on my doorstep by white girls with brown faces saying “I’m a nigger” as their costume.  But certainly it would be different if they told me they were posing as Princess Tiana (from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”), I’d give a MAJOR side-eye, but I’d keep it moving.  But the instances of grown high-school coaches putting on black face as Jamaican’s 1988 bobsled team, and certainly the picture-seen-round-the-world of the ones dressed as Trayvon Martin in blackface with a George Zimmerman was the antithesis of what SNL was going for as a brown-faced, in character of Jesse Jackson.

There’s also the very modern full-feature length movie “Tropic Thunder” starring Robert Downey, Jr. who played a role where there was a parody of a caricatured character, as a strict method actor, who went so far as to get his skin darkened to play the role of Kirk Lazarus.  The entire movie has the rapper, Alpa Chino, played by a real black person, Brandon T. Jackson making fun of of Downey’s character saying he wasn’t really black!

And I laughed for most of the movie.

While I think there maybe some argument about the caricaturization of a person, such as Hammond portraying Jesse Jackson, the counter-argument certainly exists that over the years SNL has been an equal opportunist when it came to lampooning individuals.  Rather than mockery, it comes off as satirical comedy that does more to challenge the embedded beliefs of the listener than it does to outright point and make fun of the person.  Some may even argue that it actually deifies the person in the collective memory of those who are watching.

In the case of those that go through the process of applying black or brown make up to their skin, is this an example of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?”  To be honest, I’m not sure.  The concept of whites secretly wanting to be black has been an odd trope, at least among black Americans, for some time.  Whites have been wanting to get “tanned” skin for a while, but at the same time blacks were being called dirty and how the dark skin was a direct result from the Curse of Ham (no, not the pig, but one of Noah’s sons after the Flood story).  Culturally, white Americans have always had a fascination with black foods, fashion and certainly language.  Countless movies dating back decades have portrayed whites “acting black” and the sheer awkwardness of it.

One of the joys of a post-Civil Rights (not post-racial) society is that many of those cross-cultural mixes are happening on an organic level and it doesn’t seem forced like it may have a generation ago.  But even still with the progress made, there are some who feel as though it’s socially acceptable to dress up in blackface.  Or redface.  But then the question becomes “when does being PC go too far?” and we begin arguing about the rights of whites to dress up as Indians when they walk into FedEx stadium.

I call it an obsession because people still do it despite knowing it’s one of those things you just don’t do.  You don’t do it because some people find it offensive, and shouldn’t that be enough?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

5 thoughts on “Obsessions with Blackness or Black-face?

  1. I think that a lot of this is about deviant behavior which is hugely expressed by upper middle class and upper class white children. It relates to their having been born in so much privilege that they do not understand or feel convicted by acceptable social behavior. Therefore, they do things like this with the express purpose of proving that they can and that if someone tries to them they can’t or shouldn’t they rebel.

    The larger problem with that, I think, is that these kids with all their privilege have the ability and resources to create social precedences (like the use of the word “nigger” and the denigration of Affirmative Action) that create tensions and/or encourage the public to forget the reason that these behaviors were frowned upon and became socially unacceptable in the first place. That is how we get false concepts like “Post-Racial Society” because these coin phrases are concocted as propaganda to justify the behaviors of little assholes like these girls, who probably did this for no other reason than to be socially deviant.

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