Arguments against blackface

Help.

I have gathered my arguments.  And now I need to convince some clueless people that wearing blackface or wearing makeup to look darker is not a good idea.  Even if they are trying to portray famous black people.

What would you say?  And if you were previously clueless, what argument was the most convincing?

 

17 thoughts on “Arguments against blackface

  1. When I was more clueless, the arguments that made me less clueless (albeit still clue deficient) tended to be ones that appealed to my empathy – like pointing out that whatever my intent, it would cause actual pain to actual people and probably ruin the event for them.

    Then again I was never stupid enough to think blackface was even remotely acceptable. I think that if they are that clueless, than they are probably immune to regular logic – you may have to employ insane troll logic.

    Or point out that pictures will show up on facebook and people will think they are a-holes.

  2. Blackface can’t escape its history, which was about the promotion of racial stereotypes. It is specifically about the status of African Americans in the US in the 1800s+, not about wearing make-up or playing a part.

    What is the counter-argument? That it’s no different from dressing up like the Borg? That it’s OK for Eddie Murphy to play a Chinese guy? Big diff. No comparison. No history.

  3. I was one of those people who knew it was “wrong”, but didn’t understand why, and as a result, I sort of vaguely felt like it was some sort of hypersensitive censorship I had to nobly endure because I wasn’t “racist” like the people who didn’t realize it was “wrong.” And by “wrong”, of course, I meant something more like “thing you don’t do socially,” more akin to a social rule about, like, what you do and don’t wear, instead of “thing that is actually really offensive and hurtful.”

    Anyway, the thing that sort of fixed it in my head as something more than just gauche was listening to a friend of mine tell a racist joke. This friend, of course, was totally not racist! And it was totally just a joke! Not serious at all. But somebody overheard the joke, and jumped in with more racist jokes that got scarier and scarier, and threw in some horrible impressions, too. If a PoC had jumped in to call my friend racist, I would have totally gone the “no, it was just a joke, they’re not racist, you’re sensitive” way, but having a racist jump in, I couldn’t think of any way to explain that my friend actually wasn’t racist, and the actually racist person just couldn’t take a joke or something? Seemed like they were taking a lot of jokes. I couldn’t figure out a way to explain to him why my friend’s joke was funny and inoffensive, and all of his jokes were racist and wrong, when they were all pretty much the same jokes.

    So, I realized that even if I didn’t think or believe or fully understand why some racist things were “wrong,” if I did those things, “real” racists would think they were my friends, and I’d have no real explanation for why they were totally mistaken. I didn’t take it the extra step of “I’d have no real explanation because they would be right” for several more years after that, and I still didn’t fully understand what was offensive for a long time, but it was a start. I didn’t want the “real” racists to “misinterpret” what I said or did and use it to create more *actual* racism, and the only way I could see to do that was to avoid “not actually racist because I am not racist” comments and actions.

  4. My question to these people is this- What is wrong with just being kind? It seems to have gone out of fashion. People of this sort tend to say it is “PC” and they are sick of “PC.” My response to them is- if it offends someone and hurts them deeply, why would you want to do it? Now in terms of whether that would have any effect on them, I have no idea. I have never actually talked to any of them. None have approached me for some reason.

  5. Well … my usual argument would be that if you’re portraying a specific famous individual, blackface isn’t really about achieving greater resemblance. (It’s not like people make any effort to match actual skintone when they use blackface, and it’s not like people make a similar effort to match in height or whatever.)

    And if it isn’t really about trying to achieve a greater resemblance, then it’s just about “hey, this person is black and I’m not!” which isn’t actually funny or relevant.

    The timing and your phrasing makes me wonder if this is some kind of black history month event?

    In that case, I’d say better to avoid dressing up at all — blackface wouldn’t be appropriate, but a “Rosa Parks” who isn’t black would kinda miss the point.

    Maybe print out life-size color images (like those ones people use to take fake photos beside famous people) and then prop them up while someone reads about the person and what they did?

    Or (if you can go multimedia) do a quick-and-dirty slideshow with images of the actual people? People will probably learn more reviewing a g**gle image search than they would putting a costume together.

  6. Because using characteristics that are part of any person’s identity is disrespectful. Although that should be enough, it is particularly disrespectful when we know that such behavior has already been used during our history to portray people of different races, ethnicities and faiths in unflattering and demeaning ways.

  7. The first thing that comes to mind lately is Frank Caliendo’s double blackface performance on super bowl Sunday. He imitated Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, using a lighter shade for Barkley. Toward the end of the bit – they had the real Shaq come in and imitate Terry Bradshaw using a wig, but no makeup.

    The whole thing made me uncomfortable, but you could tell he deliberately tried to match each athlete’s skin tone. Still not sure it was a great idea.

  8. I often find that appeals to empathy don’t work. (See various posts on the blog re: how racism affects empathy.)

    The counterargument is often about how the individuals are just trying to more accurately portray the characters.

    Also, I tend to think that in the absence of black people, white people think there is nobody to offend and therefore, no problem. Generally I don’t argue offensiveness, I argue contribution to a racist system.

    Aubrey, your experience has been helpful. It also points out the way we have internalized ourselves as good people and thus not racist. Without recognizing it is the effect that matters.

    I am still feeling a little stupid and at a loss for words, so additional input greatly desired.

  9. hmmm…
    I don’t know–it’s hard to convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced–but here’s one thought.

    Would it help to draw parallels to other kinds of isms? Like, “What if you wanted to portray an historical figure who was extremely overweight. Would you wear a fatsuit?” “What if you wanted to portray an historical figure who had a stutter? Would you stutter?” “What if you wanted to portray an historical figure who limped. Would you limp?” etc. Then follow up with (assuming, please god, they say “no”) “why not?” (the answer, being, of course “because no matter what your intention, when you impersonate that trait, you look like you’re mocking it. It’s disrespectful”)

    This doesn’t even get close to much of what is wrong with blackface but perhaps it could be the thin end of the wedge, so to speak.

    (have never tried this; have no idea if it would work. just throwing it out there)

  10. To the above poster, if say, George Washington was an obese stutterer with a wooden leg, wouldn’t it be a hell of a whitewash to portray him without all those distinctive traits? It would not seem ismist to me to accurately portray someone.
    Would you play Stephen Hawking in a movie walking and with vocal cords?

  11. Fallacious flip.

    I know it is obvious to most of the regular posters, but that is the “non-zuky” Kai above.

    “resistance! Keeping zuky’s reputation since 2007!”

  12. @Julia — I don’t know about that analogy. What about the ubiquitous padded mall Santa?

    And Kenneth Branagh faking a disability in his portrayal of FDR seems totally different to me than Angelina Jolie darkening her skin to play Mariane Pearl.

    (Though I do think it’s valid to criticise Glee for casting an actor who’s not really in a wheelchair to play Artie.)

    I have a strong gut feeling that other -isms arne’t (necessarily) comparable, but I am having a really hard time sorting out why. I think Osolomama has a strong point about all the baggage blackface carries — that ANY blackface performance, however nobly it might be intended, is tainted by the history.

  13. Would it help to draw parallels to other kinds of isms?

    No.

    In my experience, if you are trying to explain to a white man why something is racist, and then you use a sexism analogy, he won’t find anything wrong with either, and he will become even more convinced that people of colour and women get offended too easily and are irrational.

    It only *might* work if you are a woman of colour trying to explain to a white woman why something is racist using a sexism analogy, or other situations where you and the other person share the same dimension of oppression.

    Like, “What if you wanted to portray an historical figure who was extremely overweight. Would you wear a fatsuit?” “What if you wanted to portray an historical figure who had a stutter? Would you stutter?” “What if you wanted to portray an historical figure who limped. Would you limp?” etc.

    If the person is thin, they would say yes to fatsuit, and if the person is able-bodied, they would say yes to stuttering and limping. (Besides—and maybe this is my privilege speaking—shouldn’t an actor stutter and limp if portraying a historical figure who did? Isn’t that what the The King’s Speech (2010) was about?)

  14. How about Nazi comparisons? That usually opens some eyes…

    That will fail on the Internet. People would invoke Godwin’s law and say that by invoking Nazis or Hitler, you automatically “lose” the debate. If not, they will say that you are using an ad hominem attack or trying to appeal to emotion.

  15. @MollyW

    And if it isn’t really about trying to achieve a greater resemblance, then it’s just about “hey, this person is black and I’m not!” which isn’t actually funny or relevant.

    Thanks, that’s a really apt way of explaining it. Though, I’m wary that some smart-alec will try to use the resemblance excuse.

    @resistance
    Generally I don’t argue offensiveness, I argue contribution to a racist system.

    This needs to be my new M.O. That’s so much more simpler to tackle.

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