Blackface During Black History Month
April 1, 2019
February has been established as the month of the celebration of achievements done by black Americans in advancements towards a goal of freedom. The month emphasizes America’s long history of race relations and how far they’ve come for their narrative of oppression for African Americans. However, this black history month especially has begged the question for many if we are moving forward or backward in the way the nation views black people.
It’s extremely hard to celebrate yourself in a world that constantly belittles your existence and it seems impossible for racism to magically disappear for a month (although it is the shortest month of the year). Black History Month is seen as an escape from the devastating cultural climate America has been in since the beginning of this country’s existence and continues to go through today.
The month began with three of Virginia’s top government officials having been caught in blackface scandals. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is facing calls of resignation after allegations of him dressed in blackface next to another student dressed in Ku Klux Klan attire resurfaced from his medical school yearbook. Northam has apologized for the photograph and later denied being in the photo, however, the governor did admit to wearing blackface on another occasion for his Michael Jackson costume.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s to a party at University of Virginia to “pay homage” to rapper Kurtis Blow. Additionally, the state Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was the yearbook editor of a 1968 college yearbook that featured several blackface, confederate imagery and racial slurs towards black people.
Two luxury clothing brands have also been under fire this month for “racial insensitivity” clothing ideas. Gucci released a nearly 900-dollar sweater on its runway that eerily resembled blackface. The British clothing brand Burberry recently revealed a sweatshirt bearing a tie that seemed oddly similar to a noose.
Several Twitter users have satirized the blackface incidents, calling for Black History Month to be postponed as news of these controversies broke to allow a celebration of black history that is not riddled in the constant reminder of how black issues are desensitized in America.
For some reason, some people are still confused as to why blackface is offensive; it’s more than using dark makeup to enhance a “costume.” Its origins trace back to minstrel shows where white actors would use black grease paint on their face when playing plantation slaves, dehumanizing black people. Blackface is also linked to systematic and social repression, as Jim Crow derived from an 1832 blackface minstrel.
Regardless of how much “times have changed,” blackface will remain a reminder of the aggression black people have faced in this country. Blackface is not fashion and should definitely never be seen in a “playful” way, especially not when in a medical school yearbook with KKK attire.
David Leonard, chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture gender and race studies, explained ignorance plays into blackface: “The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential element of privilege. The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one’s segregated neighborhoods and racially homogeneous schools reflects both privilege and power. The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally.”