How are we still having this conversation? Somehow blackface just keeps popping up, from politicians posing for racist yearbook photos to Gucci and Katy Perry creating blackface-themed fashions. It’s wild that anyone still needs to be told, but clearly they do: Blackface is never OK.
But what exactly is blackface, and why is it so harmful?
For the answer to that, we have to go back centuries, to European theatrical productions that darkened actors’ faces for shows like Othello. It was far less controversial then, but still marginalized people of color.
In the United States, prior to the Civil War, an actor named Jim Dartmouth Rice is thought to have popularized blackface with a character named “Jim Crow.” His minstrel shows created a false perception of African-American culture of the time, opting for an offensive clownish performance that had no basis in the actual experience of Black people.
Sexual, ignorant and untrustworthy, popular blackface depictions of the time were an effort to justify white supremacy by creating the fiction that Black people were inferior to whites.
In the early 1900s, blackface characters began showing up in the burgeoning film industry, particularly in the atrociously racist film Birth of a Nation. Those depictions were so egrigious that the Ku Klux Klan used them to recruit, establishing blackface as a weapon wielded against Black communities.
Despite its association with avowed racists, blackface remained in common use for decades. Orson Welles wore dark makeup in a production called Voodoo Macbeth, and the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia employed blackface through the 1960s. (The parade still features performers in dark makeup mocking Latinos.)
In general, depictions waned as the Civil Rights Movement picked up steam. But blackface never went away altogether — a show called The Black and White Minstrel Show lasted until 1979 in the United Kingdom. Musicians including Joni Mitchell and Oingo Boingo used blackface in the 1970s. Politicians expressed nostalgia for the depictions through the 1980s, and Ted Danson wore blackface — at the urging of Whoopi Goldberg — for a private comedy roast in 1993.
Blackface has even persisted into recent years. Ashton Kutcher and Billy Crystal darkened their skin recently for a snack food commercial and the Oscars, respectively. And in 2019, various politicians were found to have participated in blackface as documented in yearbooks.
So why does this form of racist expression refuse to go away? And why, given its association with violent efforts to subjugate, enslave and murder Black people, do white people continue to defend its use?
The answer is likely complex, but often seems to boil down to a mixture of ignorance and an unwillingness to engage with history. Many people caught darkening their skin defend themselves by claiming not to know the full meaning of the act. (That was the case with Gucci’s recent sweater scandal.)
But for someone to be ignorant of the significance of blackface is a deliberate choice to avoid leaning about its history. We all know that blackface exists, and we all know that people are wounded by it. It’s not difficult to ask why and to read a few articles; it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to understand that blackface was weaponized against Black people for centuries.
The next time someone claims not to know the basic history of blackface, the next question they should be asked is why they choose to linger in ignorance.