Why Are We Still Debating Blackface?

It’s 2019, and we are discussing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s alleged yearbook photo in blackface. It wasn’t too long ago we Rhode Islanders were divided on the topic of twin brothers using “skin darkening” makeup to impersonate black stars in their annual Christmas season performance. They used endorsed letters from said stars to defend their position that their act was not to poke fun at but to honor. People who loved their show swarmed keyboards with swords and shields calling both black and white people too sensitive for finding offense.

Let’s be clear. Any blackface or skin darkening makeup used to portray people of color in any manner is wrong. I believe there are points being missed. Not that the practice is historically racist, not that the practice is invasive and intrusive to black people and black culture, not that the common use of blackface is to perpetuate hyper-sexed, lazy, low brow criminal stereotypes and tropes, but that people die, are targeted for arrest and suffer from social and financial oppression because of skin color in this country. There is no way to darken your skin to honor black people unless your plan is to live that way 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Where is the morality in white people making profit from something that gets other people killed? Blackface is the very definition of white privilege.

The take-away for me from the Edwards Twins blackface scandal is that people with privilege do not want to let go of their normalized racist behaviors, nor do they want to be viewed as racist. Megyn Kelly defended blackface on national television stating, “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people these days.” Then asking, “How is blackface offensive?” before apologizing. From this episode we learned that the privileged expect marginalized people to tolerate or help normalize their racist behavior, then expect free labor from the marginalized after being called out to explain how the behavior is racist.

In lieu of the more recent blackface scandals, presidential hopeful Cory Booker suggests that “we [as black people] should try putting ourselves in the position of white people and try harder to explain how degrading this practice makes us feel.” In response, I am more inclined to quote Assata Shakur. “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Or if Assata’s words seem too militant, here is another take from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; It must be demanded by the oppressed.” In both quotes, I hear voices of the past telling me the idea of appealing to the normalized racist nature of people and asking them to stop their practices because I am affected seems asinine.

Can we just stop acting like white people darkening their skin in any shape form or fashion to imitate black people is not offensive to black people? While we are at it, let’s just admit that it is racist behavior, and if white people are not offended by other white people darkening their skin to portray black people, then they harbor some form of racism or anti blackness they might not want to admit to.

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