A lot of white folks really want to defend blackface, it seems.
…conservatives are wondering whether blackface — typically, the act of white people dressing up as black people by using makeup, or, in Northam’s case, shoe polish — is always racist, or whether it can be the product of ignorance, without being inherently racist or reveling in stereotypes. In short, does an action require racist intent to be racist?
To this day, many white people have bristled at the notion that blackface is inherently racist, arguing that it is a tribute to the person being imitated or, as Robert H. Michel, the Republican from Illinois who served as House minority leader, said in a 1988 interview, “just a part of life” that “was fun.”
In 2008, Mel Kuhn, then the mayor of Arkansas City, Kan., appeared with a darkened face as part of a charity drag show. His character was inspired, he said, by movies like “Big Momma’s House”; The Associated Press reported that the character’s name was “a vulgar reference to female genitalia.”
Mr. Kuhn apologized publicly shortly after the performance after meeting with the N.A.A.C.P., but he sounded a defiant note this week. “There was no insult intended,” he said, adding: “You’ve got to stop this P.C. nonsense, where if I don’t say something perfectly correct, people just get disjointed.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, including what looks like an overwhelming sense of entitlement among people who use blackface. If I want to do a thing, why shouldn’t I? It’s an attitude that suggests we have no obligations of kindness or respect to our neighbors and fellow citizens, that their feelings pale in comparison to those of us who just happen to be white and, in the grand scheme of things, relatively powerful.
Here’s an idea: Why not just listen to black people?
There are a few African Americans, I’m sure, who will defend the rights of white people to wear blackface. But the vast majority seem deeply wounded and offended by it.
The most popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America, which continued well into the 20th, blackface minstrelsy was defined by its caricature of and gross hostility toward black Americans. In the minstrel show, blacks — and free blacks in particular — were objects of ridicule, lampooned for seeking equality and respectability. Beyond simple mockery, the pleasure of blackface for white performers and their audiences lay in the vicarious experience of an imagined blackness — a wild, preindustrial “savage” nature that whites attributed to black Americans.
“Painting oneself hearkened back to traditional popular celebrations and to paint oneself as a Black person, given American realities at the time, was to throw reason to the winds,” the historian David Roediger wrote in his 1991 book, “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.” He notes later that blackface was a form that “implicitly rested on the idea that Black culture and Black people existed only insofar as they were edifying for whites and that claims to ‘authentic’ blackness could be put on and washed off at will.”
In other words, blackface is so thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism that we should expect immediate condemnation of politicians and public figures who have any association with it, even if it’s a decades-old offense.
So, white folks, try to think empathetically: Even if you think you mean well, even if you are just “paying tribute” to some African-American celebrity, the truth is that blackface will be taken as hurtful by black people. If you know that’s the case, why persist? To restrain yourself in the service of not giving unnecessary offense may be “politically correct” — but it’s also the responsible, adult thing to do.