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  • Robin Givhan

Blackface is white supremacy as fashion and it’s always been in season

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Bob Brown

Blackface is in the news. But then, blackface always seems to be in the news.

As long as there are costume party revelers, thickheaded college students, button-pushing artists, free-associating designers and plain old unrepentant racists, there will be blackface. The blackface currently in question is, most notably, that of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and the state’s attorney general, Mark R. Herring (D). They have admitted to dressing up like African American performers they admired — the former as Michael Jackson and the latter as Kurtis Blow — and darkening their face for effect. They didn’t do this as elementary schoolchildren with a tenuous grasp on American history but as young adults at least moderately informed of it.

In the bright light of political reprisal, both men now say that what they did was reprehensible. Perhaps they genuinely understand that to be so. Or perhaps they are just feeling engulfed by the flames of political correctness and an apology is the only way to ostensibly parachute out.

Blackface is, in essence, a kind of fashion — one rooted in the dark, arrogant insecurity of white supremacy, one inspired by this country’s original sin — that keeps evolving year after year until each iteration is just a little bit different from the previous one. But they are all of a piece. Blackface isn’t a fad or a one-off. It’s a classic that’s embedded in the cultural vocabulary. Reimagined, modernized, stylized. Whether some sleek photograph in a fashion magazine or a grainy one in an Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, it’s all the same. Blackface gets to the discomforting core of how black people are seen by the broader culture and how some white people see themselves.

So often, the people who are reprimanded for wearing blackface are emotionally disconnected from its history. After all, if it’s not your past, then it’s not personally painful or hurtful, it’s all just weird-looking tchotchkes, intellectual fodder, creative inspiration. And for a lot of nonblack Americans, African American history is separate from theirs. It isn’t shared history.

Apologies tend to focus on offering a balm to the “black community.” But shouldn’t apologies be made to the American community writ large? After all, anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny shouldn’t just offend the Jewish or the gay community, or only women. They should horrify us all because those dark forces chip away at our collective humanity.

Blackface lives because so often the people who indulge in it simply don’t see themselves as racist — particularly those in the arts community or who came of age in a post-civil rights society. They enjoy black popular culture. They know the lyrics to countless rap songs and they think Beyoncé is cool and “Black Panther” was great and that the Kehinde Wiley portrait of Obama is magnificent.

The fashion industry is not racist because Prada dressed Lupita Nyong’o on the red carpet and Gucci loaned Donald Glover clothes. But after Prada’s Golliwog-like charm and Gucci’s black balaclava sweater, with the lips outlined in bright red, had to be recalled after social media outrage, both brands could benefit from a more nuanced understanding of the cultures in which they do business.

Culturally sensitive parents find the n-word offensive and teach their children not to see color. Color doesn’t matter, which is a bit like saying that who a person is doesn’t matter and how humans have interacted in this country for centuries is irrelevant. Somewhere between not seeing color and color being the only thing one can see, there’s a glimpse of a person.

People are not racist, they think, because they have that one really good black friend or terrific colleague. But they rarely consider what it means to be the “only one” in the room, at the party, at the table, in the neighborhood. Perhaps they have been invited to a black church on Sunday morning and have marveled at how they were the only white person in the sanctuary and joked about standing out and having the rare experience of feeling “so white,” which in the world of 2019 can sound like a humblebrag. But have they ever considered what it means to feel “so black” virtually all the time?

Racism is not measured by how you treat the person-of-color you know, but by how you treat the ones you don’t. It’s not measured by your affection for the singular black person, but your respect for black people in general.

People are rarely racist in the D.W. Griffith, Bull Connor, sweat-drenched “Mississippi Burning” sense. Good God, of course not. But that’s the image stuck in our head. And so, smearing brown makeup on your face for a Halloween get-up couldn’t be racist because if it was, they — the non-racist — wouldn’t do it, nor would their non-racist friends.

Blackface — or, more gently, black makeup — is just a costume. It’s just fashion. Maybe. But why choose that one? People are wearing it for the same historical reason they always have: It amuses them. It’s an opportunity to dabble in otherness and then wipe off the black and go back to being “so white” with all the benefits that entails.

For a long time, the fashion industry treated race like a paint chip. Sometimes, dark skin was right for the season’s color palette or mood, sometimes not. Blackness — or brownness — was an extra element on the runway. White was the unspoken neutral; it was the presumed default. White was the starting point. Blackface refuses to let darker skin be its own, unalterable baseline. It negates the idea that blackness is a part of a person’s humanity, that it’s a nontransferable essence of who they are. It reduces identity to a pot of grease paint, to a joke.

For some people, the idea of dressing up in blackface is just another form of drag. It’s a performance delivered with a knowing wink and a nudge. Folks chuckled at the sight of Tyler Perry dressed up as Madea; they applauded countless glittery drag queens strutting around in an exaggerated display of traditional femininity. Generations of students indulged in the drag traditions of Harvard’s Hasty Pudding theatricals and Princeton’s Triangle Club kick line. Drag has been a way of exploring the definition and confines of gender. It has meaning within the gay community that is empowering, liberating and joyful. But sometimes drag is just a guy caricaturing the worst stereotypes about women for laughs.

Blackface, though, is more than drag. It’s a lot more than a thoughtless costume selection or fashion gone wrong. It’s painful, shared history, of course. But it’s also the horrible present. And it’s likely part of a crummy future. Blackface is denial and ignorance. It’s narcissism, willfulness and disdain.

This country sorts its citizens by race. We have decided that race is important. Blackface is not a statement about which race matters more; it’s a reminder of who set up the whole ugly system.

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