Dear White Folks: Just Say No to Blackface This Halloween

October 25, 2011  |  
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Over on the web site Good, Senior Editor Cord Jefferson has penned a rather PC tract begging young white people not to don blackface this Halloween season, as every year there is some tear-soaked scandal in which this happens. The young whites cry that they didn’t know it was wrong. The black folks cry, “Why are we still being treated this way?” Lots of anger and accusations of oversensitivity and insensitivity are hurled back and forth. And then by Thanksgiving, the whole thing dies down. Until the same time next year, when it all happens again.

I applaud Jefferson for making an effort to highlight this recurring pattern, but take issue with the naive belief that a well-written PSA announcement on a site that is one giant attempt at positive-mood provocation might be the answer. Like repeating patterns of physical abuse or alcohol addiction in families, the racism that leads young white kids to repeatedly express their (perhaps subconscious) disdain for the black race by smearing shoe polish on themselves for amusement has deep roots.

It has its roots in the attitudes and images of blacks that kids are fed from a young age, in addition to the exclusion of average blacks from their daily lives through the de facto segregation that occurs in America in the normal course of life. These two factors combined make the run-of-the-mill white child think of blacks in the hyperbolic terms of unstable rappers like Lil Wayne, or coonish media sensations like Antoine Dodson. Oh, and guess who was a particularly popular costume during his heyday last year?

Maybe this is why black people don’t like Halloween in general. Whether it reminds us of the Klan, who used to dress up like ghosts to kill our ancestors, or if the holiday brings back this history in which dressing up as us was a means of white people play-acting at idiocy — black folks just don’t like it as much as other groups. The crazy costumes obscuring the face of a potential predator. The wilding crowds. Or the general foolishness that often occurs during Halloween, of which Caucasians pretending to be black happens to be one of the worst ongoing trends.

Still, I thank Cord for his attempt to put a stop to a century of madness with a few hundred words on his well-meaning web site. He is even bringing attention to the Students Teaching Against Racism (STARS) program at Ohio University, which (also PSA-style) is trying to deter whites from dressing up as blacks this Halloween. It’s a nice try, ya’ll. I hope it works (while I doubt it).

Like most deeply entrenched social ills caused and perpetuated by human insensitivity, ending blackface on Halloween would take introspection on the part of millions about race in America, and its history. It would take an empathetic — instead of a defensive — response to this history and its ongoing emotional fall out. As the majority of elders of this nation have yet to engage in this, it would certainly be outrageous to expect this of their offspring. I won’t be holding my breath. But, as usual, I will probably be avoiding Halloween — or only halfheartedly engaging in it as I try to avoid the large crowds of crazies with my friends in New York City.

Just as in horror movie audiences, in real life people of color instinctively know when to avoid danger, even in a “play” situation. And being around people in blackface who are THAT insensitive to your social and cultural identity is pretty terrifying. Also, Halloween is an excuse to act out. Blackface is a reminder of a time when acting out by a mass of whites meant blacks facing a public lynching. We don’t really appreciate your stirring the memories. If you are a white person who gets all this: I really appreciate you. But I have too often seen conversations about whether blackface on Halloween is appropriate between blacks and whites devolve into horrifying conversations — that as a black woman in 2011 I don’t want to hear. So this essay is for everyone else.

Blackface = Just Don’t Do It

Trust me. Simply nod and pretend you agree, even if you don’t get it. Unlike Cord, I don’t think you will actually change all at once. Let’s just fake racial awareness until we make it. Eventually it might happen. Cord — Valentine’s Day might be a better holiday to make this attempt at social soul transformation. For now, let’s just get people to go cold turkey on pretending to be black. A lot of facts and information won’t undo the mental coil that has some young people convinced that blackface on Halloween is the bomb.

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