Last week, honors college students received an email that an Ole Miss student who was wearing blackface in a social media post turned himself into the Bias Incident Report Team, which is working with the individual on a Restorative Justice Plan to amend his actions. It is uplifting that the student turned himself in and that steps are being taken by the university to begin the healing process, but it brings attention to a greater problem that persists among all individuals from all walks of life, from American governors to celebrities. Why is blackface still common in 2019?
Blackface grew popular from minstrel shows across America and Canada with white actors embodying deeply offensive portrayals of African Americans. The name of the most popular blackface minstrel show caricature during Reconstruction — called Jim Crow — became associated with the legislation that decimated the rights of African Americans until the civil rights movement. There is a difference between imitation and mockery, and blackface is mockery at its worst.
Though blackface is not exclusively an American phenomenon, its origins in Western countries are also based on dangerous racial stereotypes. Every year, people in the Netherlands walk through Christmas parades dressed as Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” a sinister character based on a slave. Black Pete portrays a lot of negative stereotypes held by the Dutch from earlier centuries. Last month, the organizers of the Dutch Christmas parade announced that they would replace Black Pete with caricatures that have soot on their faces in a “logical next step.” Even the UN scolded the Dutch government with a special report saying that the continuation of the Black Pete tradition allows racial discrimination to both persist and be celebrated. No matter the context, slightly less racist acts are still racist.
Earlier this year, three photos of Justin Trudeau, the liberal prime minister of Canada, in blackface resurfaced. Even though he is progressive in many other facets of his policy, his dismal response to these photographs was that though he now recognizes the hurt he caused, he was simply “more enthusiastic about costumes than normal.” Though people like Trudeau downplay the seriousness of their actions by saying that his actions were good-natured, this delegitimizes the deeply-rooted racist history of the act. Perhaps what is worst about blackface is its outright denial of its own bigotry. Those who engage in blackface today try to pass it off as flattery or good-natured fun, but those were the same attitudes of those who performed in minstrel shows a century ago.
As we approach Halloween, we are unfortunately bound to see more instances of blackface and cultural appropriation on social media and in person. The recurrence of these actions points to the flaws of the individuals and our society, and we need to do better to acknowledge the faults of our past. We need more education and less denial about the racial aggressions that occur far too frequently. There’s really no excuse for blackface. There never was.
Katie Dames is a junior international studies major from St. Louis, Missouri.