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The First Rule of Blackface: It’s Not Hard to Understand, Everyone

It's don't wear blackface. The end. Now why is that so hard for some people to remember?

Photo Credit: Uzo Aduba, Julianne Hough (Credit: Netflix/Joe Seer via Shutterstock/Salon)



Two troubled souls in Florida – Greg Cimeno and William Filene — decided that it would be “fucking hilarious” to dress up as George Zimmerman and a murdered  Trayvon Martin for Halloween. Filene donned a hoodie with blood painted in the center and put on black face paint. His friend Greg put on a T-shirt that said “neighborhood watch.” In the picture that Caitlin Cimeno put up on Facebook, the two men smile and laugh for the camera with Caitlin standing in the middle having a blast.

An innocent teenage boy was murdered and these poor excuses for human beings find it reasonable to use his body as the ground upon which to stage their Halloween fun.

(The actress Julianne Hough also sparked outrage this weekend when she attended a Halloween party in blackface as the character Crazy Eyes from the show “Orange Is The New Black.”)

I don’t know how much more direct I can be in saying this: Do not wear blackface. (Or brownface or yellowface or redface) It’s that simple. To do so is utterly and incontestably racist and needlessly insensitive.

And yes, I used a command.  Don’t do it. This is not a question about rights. Human beings have every right to do completely effed up things. But who in their right mind wants to argue for the right to be racist, the right to make a mockery of human life, the right to be an asshole?

Blackface minstrelsy emerged as a form of mass popular entertainment in this country in the 1830s. Scholars like Benjamin Reiss and others who write about it suggest that white performers donning blackface to perform for white audiences allowed white people to work out their cultural anxieties and prejudices about race, racism, whiteness and blackness.

When white folks paint their bodies black, they demonstrate that they see the black body as a permissive site for the expression of trauma, pain and illicit pleasures. In other words, being in a black body permits them to do everything they are uncomfortable doing in a white body: being lewd and crude, celebrating violence, acting sexually promiscuous, using racial slurs.

This is just one more lie of white racism: that black people are free to do all the things our society hates and demonizes while white people are bound by the strictures of respectability. White pathologization of the black body is classic psychological projection. Everything that there is to abhor about whiteness and white supremacy gets projected onto the black body and becomes a material problem for black people.

Now for many people who simply do not want to concede the horror and racism of these acts by Filene and the Cimenos, it would be easy to dismiss this as individual racism, to suggest that these people are clearly jerks, but that their sentiments are not generalizable.

Every year, pictures surface on social media of college kids and regular citizens donning blackface for parties. This is not an isolated incident. It keeps happening and it happens because white people do not actually believe this constitutes an injury to black people. Or maybe they just don’t care.

“We’re just having fun,” many of them say. Look, I get the cultural fascination with black skin. The American national imaginary is built on the mythic lore of black otherness – superhuman strength to supply the main labor force of the national economy, men and women with extraordinary sexual desire and prowess, unparalleled athleticism, and a deep anger that leads to a fearsome capacity for violence.

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