On Oct. 23, 2018, former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly defended blackface on live television.
“But what is racist?” Kelly asked. “Because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
Blackface is more than just dressing up as a black person on Halloween. It oppresses and degrades not just the color of my skin, but my history and culture as well. However, blackface is not a new phenomenon—it’s an action committed over thousands of years that continues to this day.
Many Americans don’t know the history of blackface, hence why they see it as just a costume. Blackface is the use of makeup to make oneself look like a black person, typically committed by a non-black person. Dating back to the 1800s, white American actors would smear shoe paint or grease polish on their face to darken their skin to impersonate African Americans in plays, TV shows, and movies. These impersonations reinforced negative and racist stereotypes, leading to the continued dehumanization of African Americans in American society.
Wearing blackface not only perpetuates the notion that black people are valued less than white people, but it also reinforces negative caricatures of African Americans. These caricatures include the Koon, Uncle Tom, the Mandigo, the Mammy, and the Pickaninny. Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons such as Dumbo and All This and Rabbit Stew have used these stereotypes in their content and continue to perpetuate them today.
For instance, Aunt Jemima, the popular brand of pancake mix, reinforces the stereotype of the Mammy. The Mammy, created in the 1800s during slavery, described black Southern female slaves as happy, loyal, and content with serving and cooking for their white slave owners, according to the Jim Crow Museum. Aunt Jemima embodies this stereotype because her characterization and demeanor is similar to the Mammy stereotype—an overweight, Southern black woman who cooks and cleans for white families.
Buckwheat from the TV show Our Gang, also known as The Little Rascals, embodies the Pickaninny, another common stereotype used in modern media. The Pickaninny is an anti-black caricature used to describe black children with big eyes, red lips, and dark skin who talk in a grammatically incorrect form, according to the Jim Crow Museum.
Buckwheat dresses similar to a Pickaninny, wearing ragged clothing with kinky, crazy hair, speaking like, “we is, dat am, dis am,” etc. These negative stereotypes are portrayed in our everyday lives, from mass media to product promotion. If blackface continues to persists, these negative stereotypes will perpetuate the notion that black people are valued less than whites, a racist and oppressive perception that only damages and demeans African Americans in society.
Despite blackfaced characters in cartoons, movies, and television shows being censored in the late 1970s, blackface still appears today, especially on Halloween. In 2013, actress Julliane Hough wanted to dress as her favorite character from Orange is the New Black for Halloween—Crazy Eyes. When she donned her costume—brown makeup, dark brown hair, and a prison outfit—people criticized Hough for using blackface in the costume. Four years later, Real Housewives star Luann de Lesseps wore a Diana Ross costume for which she darkened her face with bronzer and wore an Afro wig. Unlike Hough who apologized for her actions, Lesseps claimed that she didn’t alter her skin tone and attributed her darkened skin to her everyday bronzer.
No one can be a black person for Halloween, other than a black person. White people, and other people of color, cannot wear a black person costume for one day out of the year when African Americans are oppressed for the remaining 364 days. My hair is not a costume. My skin color is not a costume. Unlike these Halloween costumes, I cannot change my hair or skin, two aspects of my identity that marginalize me.
Aside from Halloween, as black culture becomes popularized, a new form of blackface called “blackfishing” has begun to appear online. Blackfishing describes someone accused of pretending to be black on social media, according to the Independent. These individuals drastically change their appearance by darkening their skin with makeup, changing their hair, and, in some cases, undergoing surgery to emulate black features. Most often than not, these individuals are white social media influencers who culturally appropriate and exploit blackness.
Unlike blackface, blackfishing isn’t used to dehumanize black people. Instead, this new form of blackface appropriates black culture for profit. As black hairstyles, language, and other forms of black culture become popularized, white social media influencers capitalize on black culture and become culture vultures to land brand endorsements.
The problem transcends beyond just social media. Rapper Post Malone has been criticized for profiting off of black rappers’ language and appearance, according to Hypebeast. Singer Ariana Grande has also been accused of blackfishing by tanning her natural skin color several shades darker, making her appear as a woman of color, according to The Tab. These two celebrities, along with everyday people, appropriate black culture without understanding or knowing the historical background behind it.
It’s unfair to say that no one but black people can wear traditionally black hairstyles or eat traditionally black dishes. Cultural exchange is inevitable as America becomes a melting pot and different ethnicities and races intermix. However, in today’s society where black people are continuously marginalized while their culture is celebrated and popularized, cultural exchange can be seen as a mockery.
One cannot indulge in my culture but remain complicit in my struggles. Where are you when Black Lives Matter is protesting in the streets? Where are you when another young black man is gunned down by the police? The black identity is nuanced and rich—you cannot celebrate some pieces of me but choose to discard or oppress others. In celebrating my culture, do not be remiss in embracing my humanity. My culture is not the only part of me, and you can’t separate my culture from my humanity.
Blackface, blackfishing, and cultural appropriation are not okay, and have never been okay. My identity is not for mockery. My blackness is not for profit. Until black people are as loved as black culture, our blackness is not up for grabs.