Let me set the scene for you: The year is 2007.
You’re attending your first Halloween college party dressed up and ready to enjoy a night of drinking and grinding.
The theme of the party, “Celebrity Rehab,” may or might not strike you as odd, but it’s the first big social event of the year so you go anyway.
You’re singing and dancing along to Under my umbrella, ella, ella, ey, ey, ey, when in walks in a fellow student with her boyfriend dressed up as Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown (cue eye roll). Both students are White, they are donning Afro wigs and have painted themselves brown – YEP, they did that!
Now, depending on who you are, you’re either offended AF and are ready to whoop some YT ass OR you think this is funny as hell and it’s no big deal. Well, it turns out students at Smith College fell on both sides of the spectrum when this Blackface incident occurred on campus 10 years ago. Some students, particularly students of color, felt outraged by this Smithie’s choice to wear Blackface and student groups like the Black Student’s Alliance (BSA) mobilized on campus to spark dialogues around the history of Blackface, race and racism. Other reactions to their costumes included people thinking the issue was being blown out of proportion, that the student “didn’t know” her costume was offensive and thus her ignorance absolved her of her mistakes. Well, if we’re speaking honestly, ignorance didn’t absolve her then and it doesn’t absolve folx who wear blackface now, so you can stop trying it!
To be able to understand Blackface and why it’s an absolute NO NO, you must understand the history of Minstrel Shows or Blackface Minstrelsy. One of the first courses I took in college examined Minstrel Shows. According to Rhae Lynn Barnes’ (an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton) The Birth of Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of Stephen Foster, Minstrel Shows were “the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in the United States in the decades leading up to the Civil War.”
You see, many of the stereotypes that have been ingrained in our psyche about people of color have stemmed from Minstrelsy, when White men used to paint their faces black and exaggerate their facial features with makeup, their behavior and their speech as a caricatured way of making fun of African Americans. These Minstrel Shows helped to create and reinforce various stereotypes about African Americans as well as other marginalized groups. As Barnes points out, some Blackface minstrel shows displayed slaves needing to be subservient to their White masters due to their “childish inability to take care of themselves, due to their lazy and carefree nature, [as] they preferred to have their clothing, food, and housing provided for them.” This message was not only false, but also dangerous in that it gave White folx ammunition to support the institution of slavery.
Today, we see evidence of these racist and dangerous stereotypes about marginalized communities in many arenas and they are only made worse and highlighted during times like Halloween.
A simple Google search of Blackface will bombard you with all kinds of images of White people acting a fool with their bodies painted in black and brown paint. On Halloween, across College campuses, we have seen a surge of people in Blackface and it’s not just the students. In 2016, a Law Professor at the University of Oregon wore Blackface to a party and said she was dressing up as a character from Damon Tweedy’s memoir about a Black man starting his medical career, Black Man in a White Coat. The University contended that she was in violation of their anti-harassment policy, put her on a temporary paid leave and then let her come right back. Professor Shutz cried wolf, I mean ignorance, claiming she didn’t know about Blackface…in 2016….right.
But get this, she was the chair of her former department’s Diversity Committee. I kid you not! This is just one of the countless stories you hear and see about people proudly wearing Blackface to have a good time at parties only to claim they didn’t know or didn’t mean to offend people if and when they are confronted about it and then be let off the hook for it shortly after. This is not only messed up, but extremely dangerous, particularly when the folx doing it are in positions of influence. What message did this Professor’s actions send to the student body? That it’s okay to wear Blackface, to wear caricatured clothing and makeup to imitate ethnic and racial groups for one night in jest and that if you’re called out on it you can feign ignorance and apologize and all will be well?
This is a public service announcement:
CULTURES ARE NOT COSTUMES
and NO, Blackface and cultural appropriation are NEVER OKAY.
Now you may have seen the various posters and videos like Teen Vogue’s on Cultural Appropriation making their rounds on social media trying to spread awareness about the importance of refraining from wearing culturally insensitive, racist and sexist costumes.
I was inspired to create my own resource for students, “Cultures are Not Costumes: A Study of Halloween.” This 44-page PowerPoint includes historical and cultural information and activities about the origins of Halloween and the way it is currently celebrated in the United States. In addition, there are activities that discuss traditions that are also celebrated on October 31st like Día de los Muertos, how Halloween is celebrated around the world as well discussion prompts and images to engage students in dialogue about Blackface and Cultural Appropriation. At the end of the resource, I included four “Take Action” projects that allow students to mobilize in creative ways in support of this cause. Our students need to know and understand that culture, race, gender, and sexuality are not something you can wear for a night of “fun” and they are not to be disposed of afterwards without consequence. Dear White people, I need you to know our lives matter all year round and we aren’t making any exceptions on Halloween.
Also, NO, “Whiteface” is NOT a thing.
To my POCs, I love y’all but you, too can be complicit in perpetuating harmful stereotypes when you wear caricatured costumes that are propped to represent a culture, ethnicity and race outside of your own. I’m cringing at the sight of Geisha and Ninja costumes, Native American headdresses, Hijabs and bindi jewelry on my timeline. Because I love y’all, I’m here to say let’s hold one another accountable. Say YES to cultural appreciation, when you learn about and honor elements of a culture with respect and say NO to cultural appropriation at all costs.