‘I donned blackface as part of my costume’

There have been several arguments made in defense of the use of blackface on Halloween that refer to the holiday’s silliness as justification. This response cites the same silliness to argue the contrary. There is a lack of attention and an absence of discourse around the performances of race on our campus — and more broadly in the United States — that make it difficult for individuals to determine how they should act or feel about these issues.

I am a minority student, which implies a certain consciousness, yet I have also managed to act ignorantly in the past. A move away from black-and-white binaries towards more nuanced interpretations is necessary.

On Halloween night of 2005, someone in my circle of friends inoffensively made me his Halloween costume. He borrowed some of my clothes, put hair on his chest and slicked his hair back the way I usually do. A year later, as I scrambled for a Halloween costume and thought of continuing this humorous precedent, I decided to dress as one of our best friends who happened to be African-American since she and I had a history of playing pranks on one another. Aiming to look as much like her as possible, I donned blackface as part of my costume.

In hindsight, I have come to sincerely regret this decision and want to attempt to answer two questions that can move the discussion of the “blackface on Halloween” issue forward:

1) As a donner of blackface myself, how did I rationalize my behavior? I thought to myself, “If my friend had green skin, I would be painting myself green. It has nothing to do with racism.” “I have nothing to do with the history of blackface in this country, and in fact, blackface has acquired a very different meaning in my part of the world as a vehicle of social protest.” “It’s not that serious. Halloween is not meant to be politically correct.” “I know my friend well, and she’s okay with it.” “Nobody but my friends will see me, and they’ll understand.”

2) Despite arguments I constructed to justify my behavior, what did I fail to bear in mind as I made this decision? Quite simply, I forgot to consider how I was turning an already socially charged and susceptible identity into a costume. The consequences, not the intentions, of such an action are often the true rubric with which to determine acceptability. This causal connection alone, without even considering arguments of historical significance, makes blackface unacceptable today. Donning it exacerbates the idiocy and ridiculousness attributed to the black identity regardless of intent because the donner has no control over the audience’s interpretation. Furthermore, when you paint yourself and put on a wig, all of a sudden blackness has become a commodity – something you can put on and remove at your disposition. This crystallizes a perverted imagination of the black experience in the United States: “All I have to do is buy some hair, paint my face, exaggerate my lips…..” and that then is my oversimplified understanding of the black experience.

Should everything on All Hallows Eve be taken seriously? Of course not. However, we should seriously consider the interpretations of our behavior and at whose expense our actions are causing laughter. I urge those of us who do not fully comprehend these issues, and even those of us who think we do, to continue researching their implications. While we have the right and freedom to do what we want in the United States, we do not want to perpetuate a world in which we are not thoughtful of how our actions affect others – a world in which we are not compassionate.

Today, there will be a Rally Against Hate beginning at noon in Pierson College and culminating in the Commons Rotunda with a series of speeches and performances. Following, a vigil will be held on Cross Campus. I am open to speaking with anyone on this issue and grateful to those who originally approached me about my own inappropriateness. We all possess the power and the duty to both educate ourselves and to address hurtful or offensive behavior every time we encounter it.

Reny Diaz is a senior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    This is a great article and promotes the other side of the discussion that has been missing.

    Yes, Halloween is about having fun but even with the greatest of intentions, we should be aware and considerate of how our actions affect those around us. Yale is an amazingly diverse and great community, and as part of this community, we should strive to be understanding and compassionate about how we treat, speak to, and address each other.

  • Anonymous

    lame,
    i suppose just going as "black" is about as funny as the 14 year olds who show up at my door in their street clothes. trick or treat.
    but is it obnoxious to dress as the four tops? martin luther king? come to think of it, those would have been way better than my costume this year.
    blackface has been abused in the past. but it's the abuse that is blameworthy, not the makeup. this is just blaming the gun for the murder.
    comments like the previous don't seem helpful to me. they sound like they were cut and pasted from a smarter person's speech. i hope that person is more capable of original thought by the time they graduate.

  • Anonymous

    Congratulations to the author for graduating cum laude from re-education camp. The cultural revolution lives!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for putting yourself out there and writing this, Reny.

  • Anonymous

    I share the same concern as the one calls the author a graduate from re-education camp. I don't want to doubt the sincerity of the message, but it all seems a little too perfect. After all, how often to we thank others for calling us offensive or racist? I also agree with the concern over the first comment. It uses a lot of big and nice sounding words that everyone agrees with to not really say anything. I'm having trouble imagining what side has been missing that this is promoting? There have been several voices arguing that this is both blatantly racist and completely harmless. So the missing voice is one who used to take the wrong view finally having seen the light? I think that's the problem with a lot of these dialogues… you either have to agree that something is racist to begin with or you have to make a fairly public show about changing your mind to that view pretty quickly after the dialogue has started. I'm not saying this is a problem with dialogue; I think it's a problem with how Yale does dialogue.

  • Anonymous

    NO, I think the 'missing voice' would refer to the perspective of someone who actually went in blackface and the real motives/thoughts behind their actions rather than the presumed ones.

  • Anonymous

    RE: "I don't want to doubt the sincerity of the message, but it all seems a little too perfect."
    - feel free to contact Reny and have a real discussion about how he came to his conclusion - that's whats great about Yale, you don't have to wonder about his sincerity - he signed his name and you can ask him yourself.

    "I also agree with the concern over the first comment. It uses a lot of big and nice sounding words that everyone agrees with to not really say anything." - Im not sure what words a Yalie would consider 'big' in the first comment but let's go with your concern about it being too 'nice' without saying anything.

    Is your concern that it doesnt offer ideas on how to be more compassionate or considerate or that it does not explain the meaning of 'community'. I guess, I'm just wondering what would a meatier response have included in your opinion other than smaller, meaner sounding words?

  • Anonymous

    The problem with these dialogues is precisely that they are trapped within a binary - not by Diaz, but by subsequent commentators. I think Reny opens up the issue's many layers of complexity. The only black-and-white binaries here are those of people like the YDN's editors, whose tunnel-visioned commentary on the "inappropriate" use of the term "vigil" appalls me. It's so much easier for you to claim that this is a non-issue because then you've convinced yourself that you can't be racist.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for writing this Reny and putting yourself out there. Thank you for also realizing the harmful effects of blackface on your fellow Yale students - how it reminds us of the disturbing history of blackface and how it was used to denigrate and stereotype African Americans. The image of blackface cannot be separated by its racist past because it was created by its racist past. Once again, thank you for sharing your own experience and how you have grown from it - I appreciate it.

  • Anonymous

    "People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does." [Foucault]

  • Anonymous

    Would it have been different if she had painted her face brown instead of black? That way she would have looked like her celebrity of choice while avoiding the true black color that always characterized blackface.