Happily walking around in our respective Halloween costumes during this week’s festivities, we were mortified to see several white people whose costumes included blackface. They sought to mimic various black figures and decided that in addition to their garments and props, painting their faces jet black was a great way to complete their costumes. Because we believe many white people do not understand the offensive nature of blackface, the subsequent part of this article will explain it.
Beginning in the late 18th century, white theater performers blackened their skin with burnt cork or shoe polish, exaggerated the size of their lips and wore ragged clothes to convey racist stereotypes about black people. White male performers portrayed black men as buffoonish, lazy, superstitious “coons” who were thieves, pathological liars and lascivious devils bent on destroying white female purity. Likewise, these performers depicted black women as either grotesquely mannish mammies or sexually objectified jezebels. The minstrel shows depicted blacks in a degrading manner under the auspices of being accurate portrayals of black people. Consequently, minstrel shows and blackface were means for white people to continue to further white superiority and notions of the inferiority of blacks. By portraying blacks in such a stereotypical way, minstrel shows were part of this country’s long and painful history of oppression and marginalization.
With this historical perspective in mind, why would a white person utilize so haphazardly something so deeply insensitive to black people? One conclusion we’ve come to is that some white people are passively ignorant of the history of oppression and pain associated with minstrelsy and blackface. Because whiteness is normative, race is not as salient for white people as it is for black people.
From early childhood, black children are forced to navigate a racially charged landscape, controlled by people who do not look like them. Black children grow up considering their blackness with every move they make, whereas white children are never forced to consider race because theirs is considered normal. This may explain why some white people are culturally ignorant of the possible ramifications of blackface and other racist actions. This passive ignorance is not an acceptable excuse.
Another conclusion we’ve reached is that some white people are consciously, willfully ignorant of the cultural ramifications of their actions. These individuals have some sense of the possible offensiveness of their actions, yet disregard them and decide that they’d rather continue existing in their own normative sphere. This problematic disownment of personal responsibility preempts engagement in offensive actions while shirking social responsibility. This brand of ignorance is more offensive than passivity because one understands the sociocultural ramifications of actions like blackface, but completely ignores them.
The last conclusion we’ve come to is that the most heinous brand of ignorance is that of the white person who knowingly takes culturally sensitive material and wields it in an insensitive fashion to openly mock minorities. Those who understand the ramifications of actions like blackface, yet purposefully engage in such actions for the sake of tasteless humor, are utterly despicable. Such premeditated actions are akin to the use of racial epithets because, like slurs, blackface is meant to demean and dehumanize. White people who knowingly commit such actions do so easily from the safety of the racial majority, without regard for those who face the difficulty of life outside of the normative assumption of whiteness.
With such racial insensitivity — be it passive, willful or purposeful — it is no wonder black students feel alienated on campus. Dressing as (insert famous black person here, ex. Tiger Woods) is fine, but once blackface is added it becomes more than a costume: It becomes representative of history. It aligns oneself with pejorative ideals and presents oneself as a modern day vehicle for the continuation of degradation.
It is cultural misunderstandings like these that make black students feel more at home in the company of others like themselves. (As an aside, many white students have expressed misgivings about black students sitting together at a table in Commons. This practice is simply a way of fostering community and is by no means meant to exclude. Students of any race are invited to join.) Some white students can complete four years at Yale and never have close interactions with black students. However, black students are FORCED to interact with the white majority on a daily basis and to debunk stereotypes and cultural misgivings that are represented and reinforced by actions like wearing blackface.
Until actions like presenting in blackface are considered inappropriate by the white majority the same as the minority, the divide between black and white students at Yale will persist.
Sharifa Love is a junior in Davenport College. She is the executive editor of SphereMagazine.com. Joshua Cox is a senior in Berkeley College.