An Alien-Eye View Of Blackface

November 7th, 2013

Blackface is the name of an art form used in the United States’ past (early 1900s on back) used to caricaturize African American humans in demeaning ways. It got its name because European-American humans would use dark makeup on their face as part of the costume. The practice is no longer used in any legitimate sense, but the term has been used frequently as of late to label anyone donning facial makeup to help them resemble humans with darker skin. As I look down on Earth while the United States holiday Halloween has recently come and gone, a surge of this controversy was just experienced.

Blackface has a negative connotation in the United States–very taboo–associating that art form as racist by definition. But despite it being labeled as such, the use of dark makeup today by those who wear it for entertainment doesn’t seem to typically be intended to mock African American humans as a group. Nonetheless, what is being claimed by those offended this Halloween season is that people should not wear the makeup regardless of intent, no matter their purpose, because the act symbolizes a racist act and time:

Commentary: Blackface is never okay –

AP-blackface: No, it’s never OK to don blackface as part of  – Slate

Blackface Is Not OK – The Daily Beast

They make clear their point, but gaps in their argument are prevalent–and blatant. Unites States celebrity Jimmy Kimmel impersonated basketball player Karl Malone and darkened his skin for his television program. On another program, Saturday Night Live, there have been at least half a dozen examples of so-called blackface in recent years: Fred Armisen as Barack Obama, Jimmy Fallon as Chris Rock, Darrell Hammond as Jesse Jackson, and more. In film, popular actor Robert Downey Jr. wore dark makeup for the comedy, Tropic Thunder. What’s confusing to me is why these authors and media linked above don’t address these examples in their articles. Logic would suggest they qualify for scrutiny.

For whatever reason, it seems that they don’t get attacked in the same way because in these instances reason is allowed to surface, and intent becomes a measured variable in judging the permissibility of wearing facial makeup to depict African Americans. Just a couple weeks ago, though, a female celebrity dressed up as her favorite character from a popular United States dramatic program. This character was an African American human, so the celebrity darkened her skin to increase the likeness. Again, for whatever reason, this use of dark makeup crossed a line that the above celebrities did not:

Julianne Hough Offends Everyone, Dons Blackface For Halloween


Three Ways Julianne Hough Can Remedy Her Blackface Halloween Costume Crisis

Here was her costume:

And here’s one of the examples from above:

Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. For it, he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Why it’s easier to pile on Hough is something I don’t understand, but that there’s such inconsistency in this scorn indicates that the impetus isn’t one of reason, but hype and opportunism. It is an opportunity for a common trait of humans in the United States to come out: a restlessness and anxiety rarely at ease and always ready to pounce on anything which can be construed as bigotry. It is hype in that  this willingness has built upon itself. Just like some humans in the United States have written about the Kardashian sisters as being “famous for being famous”, the writers above seem to react to such Halloween costumes simply because they assume others will react to them. Things are controversial for being controversial.

And I note the desperation in the words of the articles. One writer above takes it upon themselves to speak for “everyone” by saying all humans were offended. In the Slate commentary, not only did the author throw stones at the actress for her costume, but then jeered another article for taking too long in their own denunciation. I hypothesize this motivation to be a selfish concern from these writers–not looking out for those actually offended, but trying hard to say in effect, “See, I’m not racist.”

I witnessed this same response from United States media when professional athlete, Riley Cooper, said the word “nigger”. The response to this blurt was taken more seriously on sports radio and TV talk shows than was another athlete’s, Aaron Hernandez, accusation of murder going on at the same time. In the United States, the threat of being seen as soft on racism is extraordinarily serious. So serious, that these talking heads were noticeably more relaxed talking about killing than about a man’s racial slur. They echoed the beliefs of a vocal segment of United States humans. Thus, it is easier for them to go overboard in their act of  empathy than to actually think about the oddity of their position. (In the case of blackface, this oddity might mean rewarding celebrities who dressed up as people of another color while abstaining from wearing skin color makeup.)

Though at first I assumed the blackface saga to be evidence for United States humans becoming evermore extreme in their concern for not offending people and not being labeled as a bigot, it concurrently has revealed that  those who are adamant don’t define the position of most United States humans. In response to such articles, at least on more politically neutral Websites, many commentors react with skepticism and disagreement.

What the above media has done is channel this particular paranoid tendency and serve as a mouthpiece for the humans in the United States who have it. Rather than being thought leaders, the authors are being used by this social movement, unknowingly going along for the ride and doing their part to reflect the extremity.  And by exemplifying it, they are actually getting their audience to see its unreasonableness.

I’ll watch, then, to see if this reflects back on the media so they react to future Julianne Hough’s the way they did to Robert Downey Jr., Fred Armisen, Jimmy Fallon, etc.


2 Responses

  1. Jasmine

    Just because it didn’t receive the media attention that Julianne Hough’s little hiccup did doesn’t mean that people weren’t offended. Also, just because hers got blown out of proportion doesn’t mean the African American community found it any more offensive than the others. This stuff is fueled by sensationalism, not logic…and most often not even by the racial/ethnic group that’s being addressed.

    On the other hand, all your other examples were blatant comedy acts (where a little controversy is expected) and resulted in some positive social commentary. Hough was just trying to be cute/fashionable (complementing her friends’ costumes) and was totally oblivious to the message she was sending. She didn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud, but she did need to be educated.

What say you?