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.