Blackface Halloween: A Toxic Cultural Tradition

Every year, a number of Americans still think it’s appropriate to dress up in someone else’s identity.

The vaudeville star Bert Williams (Samuel Lumiere)

It’s hard imagining a scenario where Rachel Dolezal isn’t one of the most popular costumes of this year’s Halloween season. For a specific type of person, Dolezal hits all the necessary notes: A weird and troubling story that captured the attention of the national media, a readily identifiable character, an easy costume to assemble. All it takes is a skirt, micro braids, and an industrial tub of bronzer, and voila: the former president of the Spokane NAACP. (Granted, it also requires a certain lack of empathy, or, barring that, common sense.)

Indeed, what Dolezal tried to pass off as “transracialism” becomes all too common during this time of year, as the winds cool, the leaves lose their color, and some white folks suddenly seem to gain more pigment. Watch as Pumpkin Spice season slowly yields to a Blackface Halloween. (It should be noted: In Holland, Blackface Christmas is far, far worse.)

Maybe Dolezal’s deception shouldn’t have been so surprising. Every Halloween, it’s more than apparent that segments of Americans don’t see any problem with playing dress-up in someone else’s identity.

Each year around October 31, give or take a few days, the photos and videos start to trickle out online. The couple dressed as Ray Rice and his wife Janay. The friends outfitted like George Zimmerman and a bloody Trayvon Martin. It’s already started this year, with the white elementary school teacher who dressed up as Kanye West. And the Florida teenager who thought it was a good idea to cover herself in shoe polish to pull off an authentic Nicki Minaj.

There’s an especially American strain of ingenuity when it comes to turning ignorance, or just historical obliviousness, into costuming. Halloween has become the holiday of choice not just for people eager to coat their body in grease paint, but for those who don’t see a problem with being a naughty Indian princess, or a naughty geisha, or a domestic abuser, or a murdered teenager. Every year, without fail, come the jack o’ lanterns, the haunted-house decorations, and the performative racism.

Blackface, and redface, and yellowface, have a long history in this country. Minstrel shows relied on blackface and crude caricature of African Americans for the entertainment of white audiences. While the practice fell out of favor over the decades—spurred in large part by the civil-rights movement—you could still find white actors relying on makeup or a lazy pastiche of ethnic stereotypes in films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The King and I, and Laurence Olivier’s Othello.

It’s also easy to think of it as something from the intermediate past, until you remember Soul Man, and Johnny Depp’s turn in The Lone Ranger. It was only last month the Metropolitan Opera decided to stop putting the title character in blackface for Otello. (Not to forget White Chicks, which manages to pull off the photo-negative version of blackface.)

Halloween, at least in theory, is supposed to be a time for fun, where people can indulge in a masquerade that offers escape from their normal lives. So what does it say that so many continue to treat the state of being black like an outfit, akin to a Frankenstein mask you can pull on or off? It’s a reminder of what’s already clear: Being a minority in this country still means being seen as “other.”

It’s why “All Lives Matter,” but black lives continue to be a costume. It’s why, when black men are gunned down, they suddenly become super human or supernatural. It wasn’t a teenage boy shot by a police officer; it was a demon, a zombie, or the hulk. This is just one of the ways parading around in someone else’s culture is dehumanizing. Jessica Metcalfe, creator of the Native American fashion blog Beyond Buckskin, summed it up in a 2012 interview with Jezebel:

When people know of us only as a ‘costume,’ or something you dress up as for Halloween or for a music video, then you stop thinking of us as people, and this is incredibly dangerous because everyday we fight for the basic human right to live our own lives without outsiders determining our fate or defining our identities.

Like most people, I appreciate the chance to dress up on Halloween, and early on, a theme emerged regarding what I wore each year. Batman. Superman. Captain Kirk. The intergalactic entrepreneur Lando Calrissian. Daryl Hall (of & Oates, fame). The paranormal investigator Peter Venkman. Burt Reynolds.

The clear trend here is that I make great decisions. Or, that I’m an unapologetic nerd. But it’s also hard to ignore the other trait most of those characters share: With the exception of the chief administrator of Cloud City, they’re all white. And—this is the surprising part—at no point did I reach for the pancake makeup to get that legitimate Caucasian look.

Maybe I thought the actual clothes I was wearing would be explanation enough. It’s also possible I didn’t do it because I was worried my family would have disowned me. But it’s just as likely that, as a person of color, I know how hurtful it is when someone carelessly treats your life like something they bought off the rack. It’s also true that when you feel overlooked by entertainment, you start to bend your heroes to look like you. Ask any cosplayer who’s attended a comics convention.

How people choose which costume to wear is heavily influenced by culture—books, movies, comics, music, and films; public scandals and instant memes. And it’s hard to escape the fact that popular entertainment is still awash in whiteness. Even at a point when the film and TV industries are making marginal progress, shows like Empire, Scandal, Fresh off the Boat, and Jane the Virgin can’t hide the fact that white (and male) remains the default setting for most protagonists in the popular culture.

That creates a larger effect that, as Dayna Chatman, a researcher at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, put it in an interview with The New York Times, “makes whiteness the norm.”

Which is why representation in the media matters so much now. Fixing TV and film isn’t an automatic cure for the bigotry and intolerance America has built up over time.  Thought it does help to currently have a mixed-race Spider-Man, a black Captain America, and what appears to be a new young Jedi a few shades darker than Luke Skywalker. They prove that, yes, people of color can be center stage and can be the hero. They’ll make great costumes—assuming there’s no makeup involved.

And this is the simple fact to come back to: It’s possible to dress up as any black celebrity or fictional character without changing the color of your skin. Acceptance is the recognition that with the right clothes, props, and effort, someone will figure out their Nicki Minaj or Kanye costume without the aid of an artifact of America’s racist past.

It should be a relatively simple concept to grasp: Blackface isn’t just another costume. It’s a mask of privilege, the kind of unchallenged power that comes through denying the experience of others. And, for some reason, in 2015 it’s harder for some people to simply acknowledge that than have someone at a party ask, “Who are you supposed to be?”