If anyone needs an excuse to act a whole fool, Halloween is the time to get it done. Like the social equivalent of The Purge, it’s the one day when it’s acceptable to put political correctness on pause for the sake of tactless raunch and witless humor. And nobody cashes in on it more than barely closeted racists who use the pageantry around the holiday as an opportunity to fashion bigotry into costumes.
So here we are: another year, another season, another round of socially clumsy and marginally creative White folks who get their giggles off by outfitting themselves in face paint and wigs to make a mockery of Black people. It’s a Halloween tradition, right up there with carving pumpkins and watching marathons of Friday the 13th. It happened last year. It’ll happen again next year. And each time, it visually debunks the myth of this post-racial America we’re supposed to be living in—that and about 20,000 other things—because it doesn’t happen in little bubbles of isolated ignorance.
Do a Google image search of ‘blackface, Halloween’ and your eyes will be assaulted with pics of made-up pimps, inmates, rappers, slaves and straight up sambos. Lots of them. Ain’t nobody dressing in blackface to be, say, Disney’s Princess Tiana. Every incident is designed to ridicule, belittle and devalue.
Certainly blackface isn’t the product of Halloween festivity. It’s threaded into the tapestry of American entertainment and history as a whole, the creation of an era when racial segregation laws barred Black folks from show business and allowed White folks to dress up in their stead. We have Thomas D. Rice to thank for the first performance of its kind. He slathered his face with burnt cork, learned an African-American song and dance and turned his whole spiel into a character he called “Jim Crow.” Of course, that name eventually took on greater meaning as the arch nemesis of civil rights but in the beginning, it was the invention of a White dude inadvertently fanning the minstrel show movement with his exaggerated, offensive impersonation.
Like so many inherited race-isms that just won’t die, blackface has been a look through the lens that White people saw us through then—subservient, unintelligent, slovenly—and from the looks of these get-ups, nothing has changed about that perception for some. Except now, instead of dressing like Jim Crow, they’re morphing into Lil’ Wayne for the night. Trayvon Martin. The quintessential blackfaced slave in chains (minus ten points for originality, by the way). Julianne Hough has caught heat for her brown-faced prison get-up.
With the actual holiday still a few days away, dozens of photos have already gone viral of geniuses in contemporary blackface. Minstrel shows have disappeared, but if nothing else, Halloween puts on display all of the stereotypes and caricatures about us that still exist.
Apparently the real thrill behind Halloween, since it doesn’t come with a day off of work or a ritualistic exchanging of gifts, is that it allows the people who celebrate it to throw inhibition to the wind. That means folks who barely gave a damn about tolerance and multiculturalism are given carte blanche to be just as ignorant as they wanna be, if only for one night, and chalk their behavior up to just having some fun.
We could get mad and we’d be justified. We should be at least insulted and we should tell anyone who’ll listen that these costumes—and the humor behind them—are intolerable and downright trifling. The crap is just not funny, clever or cute. But there are bigger issues at play here, and these repeated instances of blackfaced insults are symptoms of the greater disease that starts with entitlement, privilege and sadly, self-hatred, since there are some lost Black folks who have been spotted yukking it up with friends who are clearly making fun of them and their people, even if they soothe and insist that the joke somehow doesn’t apply to them. The lost ones play a part in making this blackface nonsense a continual problem, too.
Memo to anyone who gets caught in blackface and wants to issue a public apology to save their reputation or their job or their credibility with their Black fans: Save that. Blackface isn’t some accidental insult. Many steps have to be ticked off the to-do list before the final look is achieved and if good conscience doesn’t pop up anywhere in the process—while you’re picking up paint at the store, while you’re applying it in the mirror, while you’re posing your foolish self with your foolish friends for a picture to share in pure jest—we’re not interested in hearing your day-after apologies. At least I’m not.