Just say no to blackface this Halloween

Yes, you can still dress up as your favorite black hero or character, but there's a way to do it – without racism

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published October 30, 2019 7:30PM (EDT)

Justin Trudeau, Julianne Hough, Jimmy Fallon, and Luann de Lesseps in blackface costumes. (West Point Grey Academy/Pacific Coast News/Devone Byrd/NBC/Saturday Night Live/Instagram/@COUNTESSLUANN/Salon)
Justin Trudeau, Julianne Hough, Jimmy Fallon, and Luann de Lesseps in blackface costumes. (West Point Grey Academy/Pacific Coast News/Devone Byrd/NBC/Saturday Night Live/Instagram/@COUNTESSLUANN/Salon)

“Professor Watkins,” one of my young white students said while twirling her hair after the writing class I teach at the University of Baltimore, “My friend is far from racist – you should know that – and she’s dying to do a Michael Jackson thing for Halloween with some light brown makeup, nothing too heavy. Seems innocent to me, but blackface can be controversial nowadays, so I thought I’d ask you.”

Halloween 2019 is finally here, and my student’s question reminded me to check in with all of the curious, article-reading white people to let them know that blackface is still offensive. Nothing has changed, the rules weren’t switched, and no we haven’t moved past the racism, dehumanization, and the pure evilness attached to blackface. So, if you have the great idea of being Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Jay Z, Michael Jordan, Prince, Stevie Wonder, the Obamas, Lupita’s character in Jordan Peele's "Us,"  or anyone black – just say no to blackface.

“Your question seems silly to me,” I responded,  as her eyes widened. “Blackface is both ridiculous and offensive. People who engage in that behavior are normally amazingly ignorant or fighting to prove how racist they are, but that's not the silly part. Why in the world would you need blackface to do Michael Jackson? Dude was whiter than, well, everybody.”

Frederick Douglass once said that 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."

Historically, blackface has been used to demonize and humiliate black people at the highest level. The practice consists of a white person painting their face black and clownishly performing stereotypes to portray black people as lazy, sleepy, dirty stupid, promiscuous, untrustworthy people  and convince white Americans as a whole to think less of us so they won't care about the ongoing oppression the country inflicts on black people. Blackface has been in existence since the minstrelsy days that go as far back as the 1830s. The same stereotypes associated with blackface are still aiding the mindsets that get black people discriminated against, jailed, and even murdered to this day.

“Good point on Jackson, but [my friend is] a great woman, from a great family,” my student pushed back. “We just don’t think everything is so deep!”

Blackface has been working overtime this year. Imagery of politicians participating in racist parties and actions have found their way into mainstream media, starting with the photos from Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s year book that surfaced. He took the blame at first, but then doubled back saying that he wasn’t in the photo. Northam has a large number of black supporters in Virginia. He didn’t resign, but promised to dedicate his term to racial equality. And there was Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey who apologized for the blackface she participated in while she was a student at Auburn University in 1967.

“You have the luxury of not thinking so deep; many of us don't,” I told my student, “Obviously I’m not the leader of black people. I’m sure Ben Carson, Kanye, and Stacey Dash are totally okay with blackface, so I think your friend should really make her own decision.”

We both laughed even though it’s really not funny, it’s actually sad. Carson actually once said captured Africans were "immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships," as if they had a choice. Kanye had said 400 years of slavery was a choice, and Stacey Dash said Black History Month shouldn't exist. These people all sound like blackface apologists – it's as if they are spewing the ideas without applying the paint.

Blackface even stretches outside of our county – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently apologized for images of him in blackface that popped up on the internet, saying he didn’t know any better. Isn’t it cool how people can, “not know any better,” and still choose to be racist?

The latest disgusting viral piece of racism to surface belongs to South Carolina sheriff candidate Craig Stivender, who dressed up as incarcerated Atlanta drug kingpin, Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory.

Stivender was smart to address the issue before it came back to bite him like some of these other politicians; however, his campaign video was a fail for two reasons. The first is that the video is looks like a comedic sketch; it’s funny, not engaging or informative. It’s hard to watch with out laughing hysterically. The second reason is that dude delivered an apology without apologizing, meaning he still just doesn’t get it.

"I did it to disparage a criminal whose actions hurt our community and country. That was a different time," Stivender explains in his video. "Today we understand that type of costume is troubling to many. To those who may be upset, I understand your disappointment. But I value honesty, so I'm opening my campaign with transparency.”

Why even address the issue if you aren't even going to apologize to the people you may have offended?

“I’m going to tell her it’s a really bad idea,” my student said, “A lot of us are just never really taught about this stuff.”

I took the time to show her some images of white and nonblack people who could’ve used blackface in their costumes, but didn’t and still crushed it. Check out some examples below:

Blackface isn’t needed for Halloween fun. This is an extremely fun day; we all should be able to enjoy it without blatant racism.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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