As you start to help your kids plan their Halloween costumes (for whatever Halloween looks like this year), and as you start to plan your own costumes for any adult festivities you partake in, here’s our yearly reminder that blackface is never, ever ok. You — and your kids — can dress up as LeBron James, Barack Obama, or Beyoncé without darkening your complexion in a historically offensive way.
You’d think, by now, this would go without saying, especially given the focus on racism and racial injustice around the world this year. And yet, just last week, a part-time high school childcare aide in Utah was fired for posting a blackface image on a personal social media account. Do not do this. Do not let your kids do this. And call out any friends, neighbours, or acquaintances who do this — tell them it is racist (that’s what anti-racism is all about).
If you need a primer on why blackface will always be racist, History.com has an excellent piece about the way blackface minstrel shows soared in popularity following the Civil War and into the 19th century, during a time of intense racial hostility:
Thomas Dartmouth Rice, an actor born in New York, is considered the “Father of Minstrelsy.” After reportedly travelling to the South and observing slaves, Rice developed a Black stage character called “Jim Crow” in 1830.
With quick dance moves, an exaggerated African-American vernacular and buffoonish behaviour, Rice founded a new genre of racialized song and dance — blackface minstrel shows — which became central to American entertainment in the North and South.
“The process of darkening one’s face was about objectifying and dehumanising a community in ways that then allowed society to find a moral peace with the violence that was taking place,” says David Leonard, a professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies at Washington State University. “Blackface needs to not only be put into the history books but is something that (white Americans) still have yet to account for.”
Parents should start by educating themselves on the history of blackface in America. Part of the privilege of whiteness, Leonard says, is to be immune from the history of blackface and have the choice to ignore the pain it causes. But it’s up to parents to help kids understand the history of the practice so they grow up to know better and do better.
Why? Because more than half of white adults still think it’s “always,” “sometimes” or at least occasionally acceptable to use blackface (incorrect). The same percentage of Black adults say it’s never acceptable (correct).
“You’ll often hear, ‘It’s just about fun, it’s just about the holiday,’” Leonard says. “What message does that send that my fun or that my child’s fun comes at the expense of others?”
Does intent matter?
As Leonard points out, white people who wear blackface often claim ignorance of its racist roots after the fact. That’s a pretty shaky argument, even with children; even if the child didn’t know better, the parent certainly should. But whether or not the intent is to harm, harm will still be done.
“If I’m walking on the street and I step on someone’s toe, yes, my intent might matter, if I did it on accident or on purpose,” Leonard says. “But it hurts no matter what; if it was an accident, that doesn’t make the pain or the bruise any less felt. So this focus on intent…belies the pain, it belies the history.”
Parents can work with their kids to create costumes that honour their favourite Black idols in a respectful way. A child dressing as LeBron James might wear a basketball jersey under a business suit because James is well-known as a basketball player, businessman, and community activist.
“But simply putting on a jersey and blackening one’s face is not [respectful],” Leonard says. “It’s belittling, it’s mocking, and it’s reducing him to something that is ridiculed.”
This story originally ran in 2019 and was updated on October 14, 2020 to reflect current information and style.