We lived in Demarest Hall, an unusual dormitory with hallways dedicated to academic and artistic themes, which was very artsy, bohemian, nerdy, and politically committed in flavor. Needless to say, the political commitments were left and lefter. Demarest of this period is perfectly summoned in Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and it was such a community in itself that to live there was essentially to attend Demarest rather than Rutgers.
As such, Halloween for me and my friend was mainly at the dorm, and nobody batted an eye at his being in blackface. We even won the dorm’s costume contest that year. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if today that friend of mine is worried that a photo from that night may turn up and get him denied a promotion.
That same year, two female friends, one white and one black, “switched” races for the night. The black one wore whiteface and the white one wore blackface. Not with an Afro wig or big red lips, but thoroughly blacked up. I believe she wore a head scarf, which could be seen as a “black” garment under the circumstances. Their idea was to ridicule the very idea of racial categories. They went about with an ironic air, the black one chirping “I’m white!” and the white one chirping “I’m black!”
Yet the black woman was what we would today term a highly woke individual. And no one chided the white one for, say, failing to attend to the fact that blackness is not just a matter of skin tone but of grappling with the coded hostilities baked into a fundamentally racist society. She was read as making a little joke, a wise one, even—and remember, this was a dorm full of people voting for Mondale, renowned (and often ridiculed) for being gay-friendly in a way alien to most of the campus beyond at the time, very comfortably interracial, replete with international students and all manner of the “different,” and professionally intolerant of the repressive, bigoted world of Reagan’s America beyond our dorm doors.
Read: America can’t seem to kick its racist costume habit
This was 35 years ago, in the age of Cheers, Atari, and New Coke. Does our nonchalance then about imitative or ironic blackface qualify as antique? After all, in some ways our society’s ethical assumptions have beneficially progressed beyond this era. For example, occasionally in that dorm, as in all dorms, incidents would occur that we would now call, and treat as, date rape. That term didn’t exist, nor was it a topic of discussion. In that, Demarest of 1984 was backwards compared with now.
Maybe a true progressive, a true anti-racist, should have reported my George Jefferson mimic and the “I’m black!” woman to the higher authorities? I’m not sure, especially since sensibilities on imitative blackface were different as recently as 10 years ago. On an episode of 30 Rock—a sitcom with a sensibility directly channeling the Demarest sensibility—the Jenna Maroney character dresses as a black football player and her costume includes brown makeup. There was no outcry over this, since the moment was perceived as an expression of Jenna’s cluelessness, presumably let pass by the “sensible” writer characters on the show.