Sting of racist practice of ‘blackface’ still lingers

by | Nov 29, 2013 | Opinion

Sara Miller

Sara Miller, Life Editor


Oh, Jim Crow’s come to town
As you all must know,

An’ he wheel about, he turn about,

He do jis so,
An’ ebery time he wheel about
He jump Jim Crow.

This was the song that 19th century American stage performer Thomas Rice would sing as Jim Crow in his minstrel show every night to sold out crowds. His beady white eyes, charcoal-coloured skin and bright red lips became a standard in blackface comedy. Mostly portrayed by white actors, the show was usually made up of dances, black songs, and actors speaking in slave dialects using the crudest form of African American stereotypes depicting blacks as ignorant, crude and childish. Though not as widely popular as it still was in the early 1900’s, we can still see some influences today in our culture and society.

Before Halloween, I was excited not only to buy the discounted candy the day after but also to see compiled lists of people’s best costumes. What I was not prepared for was the growing popularity that black face had this Halloween season. The first costume photo that caught my eye was that of singer/actress Julianne Hough, who went as the popular character “Crazy Eyes” from the Netflix show Orange is the New Black. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, brown makeup and hair pinned in every direction, Hough hit the town with some friends and at the same time, started a heated debate between experts and internet users alike.


“This is ridiculous, she just imitating a character from a show!” read one comment.

“Just to make it clear, she colored her skin bronze, so this isn’t considered blackface,” read another.

“Some people are just too sensitive, get over it!”

Hough later issued an apology, stating it was a misunderstanding. Even though she did apologize, Hough needs to learn the difference between tribute and pure mockery. Learn from Miley Cyrus’ example, who dressed in an outfit that female rapper Lil’ Kim donned in 1999 at the MTV Video Music Awards (complete with a purple wig and half-covered breasts). Despite the lack of melanin in her getup, the audience was still able to tell that Cyrus was dressed as Lil’ Kim. Hough could have easily paid tribute to her favorite character without the face paint and it still would have made sense to others.

But Hough’s choice of appearance opened the floodgates, with people showing off their offensive and degrading “costumes” online. In the days leading up to Halloween, I have seen people dress up in slave costumes, exaggerated “savage” African costumes and even those depicting Travyon Martin, the unarmed black youth shot to death in Florida last year (which is a whole other topic).

I have been told that my frustrations on this topic are over the top—that the costumes are all in good fun. But after countless years of ridicule and the bad stereotypes plaguing the black community, I can’t simply “get over” this issue.

Blackface has been frequently used throughout our past to dehumanize and humiliate people of African descent for the sake of a few cheap laughs. Such performers often used extreme stereotypes to entertain audiences who may never have had any prior exposure to black people. It desensitized American audiences to the daily horrors of slavery and brought it to a level of a joke. Why support the abolishment of slavery when black life looked so much fun and carefree to the audience?

The act of donning blackface not only has a history in North America, but also in parts of Europe. Every Christmas season, hundreds of Dutch children and adults line the streets in hope of catching the red and white glimpse of Sinterklaas and his white horse. Usually accompanying him is his helper Zwarte Piet or “Black Peter.” The character is depicted in complete blackface, with bright red lips and curly wigs and resulted in recent controversy. Supporters say the blackened appearance is due to the character sliding down soot-covered chimneys (despite his clothes being seen as clean and spotless).

Black Peter characters are usually a favorite among children and adults for his playful and sometimes naughty pranks and has even outshined Saint Nick himself. But because he is seen not as negatively as Jim Crow was, does it make it right? To me, the eerie resemblance between the two faces makes it hard to believe so.

It’s a good thing that black people have broken down so many barriers. The notion of using blackface is no longer the norm. I don’t believe everyone who has used blackface has done it with malicious intentions. Some are simply ignorant of the history of the subject. Dressing up as one of your favorite characters is one thing, but depicting Trayvon Martin complete with fake blood and a series of bullet holes in the chest is never acceptable.

If you need to paint yourself any colour next Halloween, maybe adopt the characters of The Incredible Hulk or a Nightcrawler from X-Men.  These costumes wouldn’t risk offending anyone.