I finished a research paper on the tradition of blackface minstrelsy in American theater just as the news started coming out about white police officer Darren Wilson not being indicted for fatally shooting unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As I stayed up that night reading, crying and talking with friends about Ferguson, I realized I’d been writing about the convoluted and nuanced history of blackface as an intellectual exercise—one that held real moral implications, sure, but also one that seemed in many ways abstract and distant to me.
In my research, I learned that blackface minstrelsy is a theater tradition that began in the nineteenth century, in which white people darkened their faces with makeup to portray black people onstage. Minstrel shows exhibited a combination of musical and comedic sketches, and generally relied on two-dimensional, heavily stereotyped stock characters to entertain and incite laughter from their audiences. These portrayals of black people often painted them as lazy, unintelligent, buffoonish or even dangerous caricatures which served to reinforce racist notions held by the privileged white majority.
Strangely enough, blackface minstrelsy was eventually taken over almost completely by black performers and was often performed for appreciative black audiences. A host of reasons have been suggested as to why a tradition as problematic as blackface was perpetuated by the very people it initially victimized, many of which involve the financial and artistic possibilities that minstrelsy made available to black blackface performers.
Since its inception in the nineteenth century, blackface has had a complex past that is both troubling and yet not easily dismissed, based on its centrality as a national art form that was so heavily contributed to by black performers. Either way, it’s a part of American cultural history that people ought not be ignorant of, as many in the fashion industry have consistently proven to be: see last year’s Halloween debacle, in which industry insiders wore blackface costumes to an “African Disco” themed party, or the many times that magazine editors have thought it’s a great idea to use blackface as a visual device in fashion spreads (because apparently it makes more sense to paint a white model’s face black than to hire a black model).
As a college-educated, middle class white woman, the layers of privilege insulating me from the topic make it easy for me to discuss something like blackface as an “issue.” It’s important, of course, but I can close the books, walk away from the computer, and exit the conversation anytime I want when it comes to race. I’m white. I don’t have to think about race unless I want to.
If your social media feeds are anything like mine, they are bouncing with volleyball matches of linked articles, framing the jurors’ decision regarding the Ferguson case this way or that. I’m glad to see people engaging the issue and I’d much rather see it talked about and protested over than ignored. But in the end, the point isn’t really whether or not Wilson should’ve been indicted—just as the point isn’t whether fashion celebrities happen to be well-informed enough to avoid an offensive Halloween costume next time around. The point is that, despite how far we’ve come, there’s still so much systemic racism embedded in how we operate as a nation.
Ultimately, the race conversation isn’t something that everyone can walk away from—because if the color of your skin makes you fear for your life or your family’s lives, you can bet it’s not going to be a conversation you quit because you’re “tired” of having it. A dead white guy named Ben Franklin put it really well: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Let’s be outraged, then. If you’re white and not sure how to engage, here are some starters—besides the obvious one to choose your Halloween costume well. Let’s join our outrage into something that actually produces change, shall we?