With it having been Halloween this week there have been a number of instances of people being accused of racism for dressing up as people of other races.
First there was the little girl who dressed up as Mo Salah for Halloween and was accused of “blacking up” because of the face paint she wore.
And then two days ago there was the man on the London underground who was accused of racism for dressing up as Samuel L Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield from the 1994 film Pulp Fiction and painting his face black in the process.
The comments sections of these articles have been a shit show of people hurling insults at each other for being stupid and not getting it or on the other side for being snowflakes and getting offended by everything nowadays.
There are two things that happened in every thread about these articles:
- Almost all of the outrage is coming from white people – with said outrage spanning the spectrum from that an adult white male would be stupid enough to don blackface and equal amounts of outrage that it would be called racist.
- In the large part those outraged white people are from America.
Now before I get accused of discrimination myself for separating out the country people are from, this second point is extremely important.
I’m going to admit some ignorance here that maybe doesn’t reflect well on the education system of my home country, England, but until a couple of years ago I had never even heard of blackface.
I didn’t know that people had ever painted their faces black as a way of insulting and mocking black people.
I didn’t know that had ever been a thing.
And as a result of such it would never had occurred to me, at all, for a second, that someone painting their face black would or could be seen a racist.
Now before you all scream, “well that’s just your white privilege speaking”, maybe it is to a certain extent, there is no way for me to ever be sure if my white privilege isn’t part of what might cause my ignorance on a racial issue.
However in this instance my white privilege is not the main reason for my ignorance.
The main reason for my ignorance of blackface and minstrel shows was because the shows were the American national art in 1848.
Yes minstrel shows did make it to England at one point but you know what type of minstrel shows made it to England? Apparently the ones where the performers were not donning blackface, they were in fact actually black.
I can find no references to suggest that blackface was ever a thing in England. Or that blacking up was ever done in order to mock and insult black people.
I am only aware of it because I travel a lot and so have friends from all over the world who educate me, even unintentionally, on the history of their countries.
According to a lot of the articles on this incident that man who was dressed as Samuel L. Jackson was from Bulgaria.
I wonder if blackface was ever a thing there either.
This doesn’t mean what he did was ok. But it might explain the ignorance.
Which leads me to the people who are trying to claim that it’s not racist by using what I’ll call:
“The White Chicks defence”
Of all the white people expressing their outrage in regard to the articles on this a lot of the outrage was at the fact that this was even called racism in the first place since;
“Uh, uh, uh… that movie White Chicks.”
Yes there is a movie called White Chicks.
And yes two black guys dressed up as white chicks in it, as the title would suggest.
I would tell you more about what happens in the film but honestly I’m just not willing to lose those hours of my life again by re-watching it to remind myself.
It was a dreadful film, but that’s by-the-by.
The point is that “*shock horror* some black guys did what people are describing as “whitefaced” in it.
They made themselves look white.
I can’t speak for whether what they did once they made themselves white was racist since, as mentioned above, I’m not re-watching that, but them making themselves white was not racist nor was it the same as blackface.
The definition of racism, if you just type it into the old Google is:
- prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
- the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
The black guys making themselves look white in White Chicks? Nothing racist about that according to the above definition.
If they then imitated specific “white characteristics”, especially in a way that portrays white people as inferior, then yes that would have been racist.
But just the act of them making themselves look white, not at all racist.
Doesn’t fit into any of that definition.
Just because them “whiting up” wasn’t racist though, doesn’t mean blacking up isn’t.
The rules are different when a group has been oppressed and discriminated against before. As one article discussing Megyn Kelly’s comments pointed out:
“words and actions cannot be divorced from their historical contexts”
No white person sees White Chicks and thinks the guys who dressed up are being hostile towards them in having whited up.
Given the history of blackface though some people on seeing others having blacked up will think that there is hostility in that action.
The guy on the tube clearly wasn’t being purposefully antagonist towards black people.
And clearly from the definition of racism as can be see above, intentions do matter.
But having now been told that his actions could be seen as offensive, from someone of the race in question, that means that for him to continue to do it anyway would be antagonist and therefore racist.
He was ignorant.
And hopefully the video of what he did having gone viral will help educate him, and others who may not otherwise have known why blackface isn’t ok.
Because here’s the thing, it’s not up to white people (myself included) to decide if blackface is racist.
Whoever is the group that the potential discrimination is against gets the last say on what is ok or not.
As Amber Ruffin put it on Late Night when discussing Megyn Kelly’s comments about “blackface being ok for Halloween”, speaking of the panel on the show all being white she said:
“How are you gonna have a bunch of white people sit together and figure out what’s racist? White people don’t get to decide what’s racist,”
“If I punch you, I don’t get to decide if it hurts or not. You do.”
Just as a man shouldn’t get to make the final call on if something is sexist towards women, I as a white person can’t and shouldn’t make the final call on if something is racist towards a black person.
That’s for that person to decide as they’re the only ones who can actually truly say how those actions or words felt for them.
Yes people of other races can support each other in the fight against racism, and they absolutely should just as men should support women in the combating sexism towards women, but all of those white people going “but, but, but White Chicks” need to take a step back and instead ask;
“Are there black people who are upset by blackface and do they think it’s racist?”
If the answer is yes (it is), then blackface isn’t ok. Simple enough.
The n-word may have no personal meaning for me but I know it would offend and hurt people for me to use it because of its historical context, so I never would.
This is no different.
For those wondering why I would write this if I don’t believe a white person can have the final say on if blackface is racist – I’m very well educated English person. VERY well educated. I went to some of the best schools in the country and went to one of the top 10 universities but yet I still had no idea about the history of blackface. If I, from my very privileged educational background, wasn’t aware of that historical context it seems likely a lot of others aren’t too. I write this so that maybe we can stop the ignorance.