“So why is it racist because its black??? Why isn’t it racist to dress as an Indian? Egyptians? Samurais? Munks!!?? Its all in fun! So that’s fine you have an opinion you think its tacky, but I think its tacky and pathetic that our society has turned into a bunch of cry babies that can’t move on! That’s my opinion and I am not sorry for that! What I’m sorry for is how I am the one who has to deal with racism on a daily basis, and be careful for what comes out of my mouth because someone might be offended!”
-A comment from The Salt Lake Tribune online article, Utah actress, dancer Julianne Hough offends everyone with blackface costume
TW: Racism, Blackface
In the spirit of Halloween, I was hoping to write about something, I don’t know, Halloween related. But in the midst of a recent event concerning race, I felt it necessary to address the problematic nature of the event and the follow-up responses to said event. Halloween can be a scary holiday and there are few things that are more frightening to people of color during this time than to see our existence relegated to a costume. This on the basis that “it’s just Halloween” then to be told by non-people of color that we, as people of color, shouldn’t be upset over it.
Even Stephen King could not write something that terrifying.
I acknowledge my privilege of speaking as a cis able bodied heterosexual middle class American woman and I can not attest to the kinds of racism that various people incur throughout the course of their lives. I can, however, identify with the frustration that stems from being seen through stereotypes and the propagation of white supremacy in public discourse. Racism is a term that encompasses discrimination and prejudice through institutional and systemic means. However, it is Anti-Black racism that brings me to pause in the case of the pictures that surfaced of Julianne Hough’s costume this past weekend and the subsequent comments posted online.
When I use the term “body”, I’m referring to the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components of what makes us human. Blackness consists of that collective body of persons of black African descent. It consists of culture, language and traditions, both current and those that have been passed down from generation to generation. Anti-Blackness, then, exists as efforts to eradicate, both consciously and subconsciously, these experiences and the personhood of black people to maintain white supremacy. Anti-Blackness is an extension of white supremacy and as such, is not confined to white people. All races (including black men and women i.e. Respectability Politics, Colorism, Eurocentricity and choices in relationship partners) can engage in Anti-Blackness. A popular argument during the George Zimmerman trial was that “George Zimmerman can’t be racist because he’s not white.” The problem is, for many people, George Zimmerman operated in anti-black praxis, that is in part, the devaluation of black bodies and the inherent fear of black men.
Many commenters on various internet threads claimed that what Ms. Hough was doing was not blackface and her actions were not offensive. These comments often didn’t take into account the history of blackface and their roots in anti-black sentiment, the privileged position they held as non-people of color or the latent racism that was revealed through their commentary. The fact of the matter is, Ms. Hough could have easily portrayed the Orange Is The New Black character “Crazy Eyes” without bronzing her skin just as people of color can dress up as white characters without having to paint our faces white in order to be recognized. I can’t speculate on whether or not Ms. Hough’s choice to wear blackface was done out of malice or ignorance. However, with the various examples of blackface (and the backlash that has occurred because of it) that have sprung up over the years, one would think someone on her team would have mentioned that it may not be a good idea to paint her face black.
Blackface isn’t just about mocking black people. It’s not just Al Jolson or this famous actress performing on stage or screen for “entertainment”. Blackface is about taking on an identity that the wearer will never experience. It is the anti-black action that objectifies the personhood of black people. Ms. Hough can wipe the color off of her skin at the end of the day and return to her life as a non-person of color. She can wipe away the stigmas, anxiety and hatred attached to that skin color. People of color can not.
Plainly stated, if a person of color is telling you that what you are doing is racist, there is no further discussion that needs to be had about the topic. Our voices shouldn’t have to be validated by other white people. Our experiences as people of color are more than enough to critique any argument that exists to promote white supremacy. Commenting that “you shouldn’t be offended” is an utter devaluation of my experience as a person whose life is affected by my race.
Sadly, Ms. Hough in blackface was not the only instance of people appearing in blackface this year. It will certainly not be the last instance of a people appearing in blackface until society approaches racism on an institutional level as opposed to an individual one. This Halloween, if you are considering dressing like someone of another color please consider the person who is attached to it. Because for them, it’s no costume.