OPINION: Recent blackface incidents unveil America’s ingrained racism

Illustration by Steck Von.

Imani Thaniel, Contributing Writer

Americans saw blackface for the first time at a minstrel show in New York in the 1830s. White performers covered their faces in shoe polish or burnt cork to mimic African slaves. The shows characterized slaves as lazy, stupid, criminal and hypersexual, among other offensive stereotypes.

After the Civil War, blackface performances only increased, establishing a stereotype that had long-lasting effects on a race of people who are much greater than the color of their skin. Ending blackface is a step toward solving other issues of racism because of how ingrained the practice is in history.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded in 1868. The Elks club, or “the burnt cork brotherhood,” as it was commonly referred to, was formed by minstrel performers. By the 1960s, presidents including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy supported the brotherhood. Because blackface was so widely accepted throughout all of the 20th and into the early 21st century, no one deemed it deplorable except those who were affected by it — black people.

Today, the blackface allegations against Gov. Ralph Northam bombard our social media timelines after his 1984 yearbook photo surfaced earlier this month. Even though he denies being either person in the photo, Northam did admit to wearing blackface in 1984 when he dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance competition. He said in an interview with CBS that he is “not the same person,” but that does not excuse the fact that his indecent actions are just as racist now as they were 35 years ago.

It is socially and morally unacceptable for people to wear blackface because it was built from a prejudice and stereotype of African-American slaves and freedmen whose history should be preserved — not trampled over for white people’s entertainment.

Slavery should not be mocked. There is no joke in the inhumane treatment of the Africans who were brought to here against their will to be laborers for white men who called themselves leaders of a “free nation.”

Blackface was so widely accepted as a non-issue because it was dismissed. No one has ever stood up to a government leader and said, “Blackface is wrong and it should be outlawed.” Easier said than done, but the offensiveness and ridicule behind blackface should make any person in leadership of this country want to outlaw it because it is — and always has been — hurtful, disrespectful and just wrong.

In 2017, there were three reported instances of blackface at Oklahoma State University. Four female students wore black masks on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and six days later, another woman took a picture wearing a mud mask with a caption that read, “When he says he only likes black girls.”

At Brigham Young University, a young man wore blackface to a Halloween party, while students from the University of North Dakota put on black facial masks and captioned the photo, “Black Lives Matter.”

Just a few weeks ago, Gucci was selling an obnoxious blackface sweater.

These are just a few of many incidents — the FBI reported a 17 percent increase in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. Out of more than 7,000 crimes reported, 2,013 were targeted at African-Americans.

The continuous dehumanization and humiliation of black bodies contributes to the number of hate crimes in this country. If it’s acceptable to mock us, it becomes acceptable to physically violate us.

Some people, like our current president and his political cabinet, would argue that there are issues much greater than blackface such as immigration, foreign trade and war. But if social injustices formed 100 years ago are still not addressed, we will never be “one nation under God,” and all Americans cannot live in liberty and justice.

Putting an end to blackface is a step toward solving other long-standing social issues in America. But people must first recognize that blackface is part of a long chain of black dehumanization, which is rooted in an even deeper injustice of disenfranchising blacks socially, politically and economically. Racism is deeply ingrained in American culture, and it’s used for entertainment and profit.

African-Americans are still living in the lasting effects of racism through police brutality, inequality in the workplace and being the face of Halloween costumes for fraternity parties. The meaning has never changed. Blackface has and always will be a form of white supremacy and black inferiority.

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