Why is it so hard to understand that donning blackface makeup is racist?


I try to avoid the occasional dust-up involving media personalities, since I do not really care about their comings and goings. But the recent flap over Megyn Kelly’s comments expressing puzzlement as to why white people wearing blackface is seen as racist is worth noting. In this case, she was saying that if someone wanted to be Diana Ross for Halloween, then what was wrong with making her face black? As a result of her comments, it appears that she is being fired by NBC. Before coming to NBC, Kelly had a long history at Fox News of racist dog whistles, via statements proclaiming that Santa Claus and Jesus were white.

She also paired her statement of blackface with a statement about people of color wearing whiteface makeup, saying “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween” and wondering why this was so. But that symmetry is phony. By coincidence, a few days ago I watched an episode of Dear White People that addressed just this issue, in which a college literary society whose membership is entirely white, decides to host a blackface Halloween party. When the head of the society is upbraided by a black student, he makes the same parallelism argument as Kelly, to which the black student replies that black people wearing whiteface is “not a thing”.

This puzzlement is deeply disingenuous. I recall how when we were visiting New Zealand many years ago, my younger daughter, who must have been in her early teens, told us in a horrified voice that she had seen a blackface doll and was shocked that people would own such a racist item and display it openly. The doll in question was a ‘Golliwog’, a children’s literary character, which was inexplicably popular in the UK and its former colonies and was for a long time adopted as the symbol for a popular brand of jam. This article describes how it became popular and later became a source of controversy. It is thought that the racist slur of ‘wog’ used by the English for people of color likely derived from Golliwog.

My point is that if my daughter at a young age could immediately see that the doll was racist despite never having been exposed to it before and not knowing about the historical role of blackface in minstrelsy, surely an adult like Kelly who has grown up in the US with its racially tense history would know the same. I think she did know but was playing the usual “I’m only posing the question” card that is pretty much standard operating procedure at Fox News, where expressing puzzlement over something that is clearly wrong has long been a conscious strategy.

Wearing black face was long a staple of minstrelsy and has a deep association with the denigration of people of color. To act like that can be simply erased is ridiculous. Samantha Bee gets an expert on the history of blackface minstrelsy to explain this yet again.

Comments

  1. Curt Sampson says

    My point is that if my daughter at a young age could immediately see that the doll was racist despite never having been exposed to it before and not knowing about the historical role of blackface in minstrelsy, surely an adult like Kelly who has grown up in the US with its racially tense history would know the same.

    No, I don’t see why she would. White people grow up having no idea what it’s like to be a person of colour in a white-dominated country. We can hear about it and think, “Oh yeah, must remember not to be racist, whatever that is.” We can get some insight into the emotional side of it by reading books like Black Like Me. (I found that one incredibly powerful.) But no amount of regular pointing out of, “look at that racist thing happening to that other person over there” is going to give someone the kind of sensitivity to and understanding of it that experiencing it directed at yourself on a daily basis will.

    While there are plenty of things where I can not just sympathize but empathize with the anger that people of colour feel at being treated badly, there are plenty more where I have no emotional reaction because it’s just so far from my experience. To be frank, darkening one’s skin to dress up like Diana Ross doesn’t bother me emotionally at all. I have to appreciate that it’s racist via intellect, rather than emotion. That’s work, and even harder work if there are other things nearby that do influence one emotionally. It’s work that white people should and must do, but it should be no surprise that some people won’t. It’s not like there’s a huge penalty for white people not bothering to worry about the oppression of others, most of the time.

    (Actually, a prefect example came up even writing this. I like to be reasonably concise, and I find “people of colour” annoyingly verbose; were it only about syllables and cadence I’d prefer to use “coloured people.” That’s where I have to haul back and go with what the people I’m referring to want me to say, even if I have no real understanding about how each of the two phrases makes them feel. Now that I think about it, I guess I could try “non-white,” but given that I really have no way of judging here, I think I’ll just stick with what I see the non-white people around me using.)

  2. jazzlet says

    I am in no way justifying the popularity of the Robertson’s Gollywogs, but certainly one reason was that they had collectable pins, so many jam labels got you a gollywog doing something, and they had would bring out new ones from time to time. As an ignorant child in the 60s I desperately wanted one of those shiny pins, and so got my first education in why gollywogs were offensive to black people at a young age from my (white) parents and older brothers. I am pretty sure my grandmother wouldn’t have been so against me getting a golly pin, though she died well before I was old enoughh to have that sort of conversation with her. At that time the Black and White Minstrels still had a TV show.

  3. jazzlet says

    Mano it is your choice where you link to, but I would appreciate it if you are going to link to the Daily Mail you would make that clear, it’s an offensive, racist, fear-mongering Tory rag. I do not want to give them a single click.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    when we were visiting New Zealand many years ago, my younger daughter, who must have been in her early teens, told us in a horrified voice that she had seen a blackface doll and was shocked that people would own such a racist item and display it openly

    That sounds like an excellent teachable moment: not all cultures are alike, and it is arrogant and imperialist (and racist!) to travel to other cultures and expect them all to hew to your values and to appreciate and be sensitive to your history.

    Newsflash – to most of the world, “minstrelsy” is, like black people wearing whiteface, not a thing. (Apart from, you know, when whiteface IS totally a thing in a major mainstream Hollywood movie. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0381707/ . And that other major mainstream Hollywood movie. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103128/. Or that other major mainstream Hollywood movie. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115580/ But you know, not a thing.)

    The USA fought a civil war to preserve the institution of slavery. Minstrelsy was a part of the ongoing racism that followed, even though those in favour of slavery *lost*. The golliwog was a character from a children’s book written by a British Jewish woman – it didn’t originate in the USA. Black Americans outnumber the entire population of Canada (or Romania and the Netherlands combined, if you like). Black New Zealanders wouldn’t even half fill Harvard’s football stadium. Black people weren’t taken there in numbers to be enslaved like they were to the USA.

    None of this excuses Kelly, of course. This is the textbook definition of disingenuous.

  5. Curt Sampson says

    But you know, not a thing.

    @sonofrojblake I don’t see anybody here (or anywhere, really) except you saying that “whiteface” isn’t a thing. The question is, is it an offensive thing? Does putting on whiteface and saying, “look how fun this is!” do what putting on blackface for a party does, which is ignore or even deny the fact that being black in the environment where that originated was very much not fun at all?

    (Not to mention that if a black person had tried whiteface a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago in the U.S. they probably would have been lynched. “We can do this, but if you try it we kill you” is a pretty strong expression of a power relationship.)

    Whether blackface is ok outside the U.S. I can’t say, but I think it’s fair enough to leave it up to people of colour to decide that. I think the Māori might have something to say about how white New Zealanders have historically treated people with darker skin.

  6. Mark Dowd says

    @sonofrojblake

    I am only passing familiar with one of the movies you linked (White Chicks), and I will just say that digging up a few movies (out of hundreds and thousands, especially when one is a stupid gag movie) does not make something “a thing”. A few movies do not carry the same historical baggage as blackface does.

    And even if whiteface was a thing, it would still not be a mirror of blackface because their history is not remotely the same.

    BTW, blackface was popular in Britain too, which has a very similar history of abducting and enslaving Africans as us. Saying that the Golliwog was invented by a British person isnt absolving it of racism, it is convicting it. Its just that the New Zealanders wouldn’t have been as aware of British and American racial history as we are, and wouldn’t be sensitive to that sort of thing. Even Japan has fallen into that trap: check out Mr. Popo from Dragonball and Jynx from Pokemon (the original sprite especially). Both are pure blackface.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    @Curt Sampson, 6:

    @sonofrojblake I don’t see anybody here (or anywhere, really) except you saying that “whiteface” isn’t a thing… because I haven’t read the blog post I’m commenting on.

    Pop quiz, dumbass – what are the last three words of paragraph two of this post?

    @Mark Dowd, 7:

    digging up a few movies (out of hundreds and thousands, especially when one is a stupid gag movie) does not make something “a thing

    Lightsabers are “not a thing” – I get you. Which is to say – I now understand your worldview, which is that if YOU aren’t personally familiar with it, it’s not a “thing”. Have you ever tried sushi?

    BTW, blackface was popular in Britain too

    Really? While you’re on this one, could you let me know the toilet arrangements bears use and the current religious denomination of the pope?

    Saying that the Golliwog was invented by a British person isnt absolving it of racism, it is convicting it

    Uh… yeah. Like I said, “teachable moment”. By deliberately eliding the ethnic origin of that British person you’re disingenuously missing out about 50% of the value of it, but, uh, yeah. That’s what was intended.

    New Zealanders wouldn’t have been as aware of British and American racial history as we are, and wouldn’t be sensitive to that sort of thing

    So you did get most of the point. Well done you little fella, and well done for repeating it. Have a cookie.

    But really, let’s not get into a discussion of Japanese racism. There’s a deep and winding hole with no bottom.

  8. Curt Sampson says

    Pop quiz, dumbass – what are the last three words of paragraph two of this post?

    The problems with your attempt at reasoning are becoming clear. First, whether or not I am a “dumbass” has nothing to do with whether the argument I’m making is logically correct or not. If a “dumbass” says that E = mc², would you say that that must be wrong because it’s a “dumbass” saying it?

    You may know this, of course, in which case your use of “dumbass” was not actually a real attempt to claim that arguments are true or false based on who’s saying them but you’re simply letting your emotions get in the way of using reason. Being charitable and going with that, let’s set aside whether or not I’m a “dumbass” (you may take it as me granting that I am, if that will help you overcome your emotions and look at the actual argument) and see what people are trying to say here. Read the full sentence you’re talking about:

    When the head of the society is upbraided by a black student, he makes the same parallelism argument as Kelly, to which the black student replies that black people wearing whiteface is “not a thing”.

    Now it could be the case that the black student here meant by “not a thing” what you mean by it, that “no black person has ever put on whiteface,” and he truly believes that, in which case we would both be in agreement that he was wrong. We can’t ask him, so we don’t know. But that doesn’t really get us anywhere with the core question here, which is, “should white people putting on blackface be taken as offensive.” (The argument made in the sentence above is that it should not be because black people have put on whiteface.)

    A more charitable interpretation of the black student’s response would be that he’s saying (not as well as he could, at least when communicating with you) that black people putting on whiteface isn’t the same thing as white people putting on blackface. Now, you could ignore this, and say, “because this student isn’t clearly saying that, I will not address that argument.” But that technique turns into a senseless defense of anything: “I can ignore this because it wasn’t said at the right time.” If that’s the approach you’re taking, again, you’re utterly failing to use logic and reason.

    If you do accept that, even if this student didn’t well express the argument, or didn’t make it at all, you still need to address it, then you can re-read my post above and see if you can do so with something better than “I think this person is a dumbass” or “this thing was said, but not by that person over there at that time and so I can ignore it.”

  9. sonofrojblake says

    Paragraph 1: noise.
    Paragraph 2: noise.
    Blockquote of the bit you missed.
    Paragraph 3: trying to deflect.
    Paragraph 4: ditto.
    Paragraph 5: noise.
    —————————————-
    You said: “I don’t see anybody here (or anywhere, really) except you saying that “whiteface” isn’t a thing”
    The post you didn’t read properly said: “the black student replies that black people wearing whiteface is “not a thing”.”

    I didn’t presume to respond to what the black student meant. It’s not my place to speculate. I responded only to what he said. I never said or implied it was the same thing. That’s from your head, like all the other wasted words in post 10.

    Dissemble about what it all means at tedious length if you like – oh, you already did. The fact remains that:
    1. someone did, in fact, say whiteface is “not a thing” in those words.
    2. In direct response to that, I observed that yes, it isn’t a thing, apart from, y’know, all those times when it was, and gave three examples.
    3. you claimed nobody ever said whiteface wasn’t a thing.

    (1) & (3) are in baffling contradiction, whatever verbose spin you try to put on it. Hence my use of the word “dumbass”.

  10. Curt Sampson says

    …trying to deflect

    The irony is strong in this one.

    It’s clear you don’t want to address whether or not whites putting on blackface is offensive, so I’ll just assume you agree it is, and at least we’re clear on the important point.

    As for your inability to comprehend that “a thing” and “not a thing” can’t have strictly the exact same meaning at all times in all places, I offer a sentence from your original comment: “to most of the world, ‘minstrelsy’ is, like black people wearing whiteface, not a thing. ” By your interpretation used later in that comment, this would mean that most people in the world don’t believe minstrelsy and blackface ever to have existed or been done by anyone. They’re all clearly wrong, and I suspect you’re very wrong in thinking that, say, people in New Zealand would deny all knowledge of these things ever happening.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    I think I see the problem here. I apologise for not making allowances for you not operating in your native language.

    In response to paragraph two, for most people’s benefit I can respond with the single word “duh”. I obviously will explain it more thoroughly for you. I never said or implied that it wasn’t offensive. The question of whether or not it was offensive was something YOU brought up. You then tried to make this interchange about that. You failed, because I didn’t respond, and I didn’t respond because DUH, blackface is definitely offensive to people in the US and UK and you I considered that so obvious it didn’t merit a response. I figured you’d eventually understand that and yay! You got there in the end! Well done you.

    Now onto your incomprehension of the phrase “not a thing” and what “a thing” means in this context. I get that for someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language that this is a subtlety that’s easy to misunderstand, and I apologise for assuming you were a native speaker familiar with the idiom.

    “A thing”, in the original context, means “something common or familiar in our culture”.

    An example: in England, afternoon tea is “a thing”. In the USA, afternoon tea is “not a thing”. Here’s what’s obviously passed you by: saying something is “not a thing” doesn’t mean that person is denying the possibility of that thing’s existence anywhere or ever. They’re saying “that’s not a thing that happens here, now, in this culture“.

    Another: in the UK for most of my life, “Black Friday” was not a thing. A day of intense shopping the day after Thanksgiving? Why would it be? We don’t celebrate that holiday, so there’s no reason it should be. OBVIOUSLY saying “it’s not a thing” doesn’t deny its existence in the USA. The interesting thing is Black Friday is now a thing in the UK, pretty much entirely because of Amazon. I’d be prepared to bet most people in the UK aren’t even aware (and certainly don’t care) WHY it’s a thing, but they will have heard of it in 2018, and will shop on that day for the discounts.

    So, back to the original context: the black student said black people putting on whiteface wasn’t “a thing”. And I pointed out – with no fewer than three examples (and hyphenman has supplied a fourth – thanks!) – that this assertion is false. You don’t seem to be able to dispute this fact successfully. I do wonder why you’re trying.

  12. Dunc says

    So, back to the original context: the black student said black people putting on whiteface wasn’t “a thing”. And I pointed out – with no fewer than three examples (and hyphenman has supplied a fourth – thanks!) – that this assertion is false. You don’t seem to be able to dispute this fact successfully.

    OK, I’ve been avoiding this so far because it’s incredibly tedious, but enough is enough…

    Your examples are not of “whiteface”, if by “whiteface” you mean a race-reversed equivalent of blackface. They’re of an entirely different cultural phenomenon that only has very superficial similarities… They’re all examples of black people attempting to actually pass as white. That is not equivalent to blackface, because blackface is absolutely not about white people actually trying to pass as black – it’s about white people adopting a particular racist caricature of blackness which nobody could ever mistake for the real thing. Also, in your examples, the “comedy” is at the expense of the person in makeup, whereas in blackface, the “comedy” is at the expense of the race depicted.

    If whiteface actually were a thing, it would probably look more like The Joker.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    This is tiresome.

    Your examples are not of “whiteface”, if by “whiteface” you mean a race-reversed equivalent of blackface

    I don’t. So the rest of your post was a waste of effort. We’re done here.

  14. Dunc says

    Your examples are not of “whiteface”, if by “whiteface” you mean a race-reversed equivalent of blackface

    I don’t. So the rest of your post was a waste of effort. We’re done here.

    Fair enough, but that seems to be what everybody else means by it, so it’s probably not surprising that people are disagreeing with you. It’s certainly what I would understand the term to mean.

    We are indeed done here.

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