I promise this is not an post about blackface, although for the first paragraph or so it might seem that way. Blackface is inevitably in the news this time of year as people nationwide make terrible costume decisions. See Julianne Hough. This is a post about the calling out of privilege, the ease with which one can unintentionally offend, and the fact that ultimately, unintentionality is entirely beside the point. So here’s what happened:
The backstory: In light of Julianne Hough, my brother and I were discussing why blackface is offensive. Neither of us was suggesting that it is not racist or in any way advocating for its acceptability, but we were testing the boundaries of it in a purely academic sense (and yes, I know that sounds uber douchy, but as you will soon see, the douche-factor is sufficiently addressed by what happens next). We were talking about the difference between blackface and other forms of racial imitation (white people with dreadlocks or cornrows, for example). Why are some considered more harmful than others, etc (one obvious answer is the history of minstrel shows which hinged on blackface). We ultimately agreed that, regardless of whether we could articulate in any specific way why blackface was so offensive, it didn’t matter because we know that it causes harm, so duh… don’t do it.
Chapter 1: I am overeager with social media: After our conversation, I went a-reading on the interwebz, as I am apt to do, to see what good writing was out there on the subject of blackface. I found a bunch of interesting things, but nothing that I thought was accessible for my brother (and I wanted to continue our conversation). So, I posted this in FB:
A bunch of helpful people sent articles and commented, and I wrote a follow-up email to my brother using some of the new stuff people sent and sent it off without a thought.
Chapter 2: In which I found out that tone is important: I got a Facebook message from an old friend named Laura. Though she (correctly) assumed that my intentions were good, she had a “wtf reaction” to my post and solicited opinions from some of her friends who are all, like her, women of color. And man, their responses were brutal. A few highlights:
"I find Emily's comment offputting because I feel that she is digging for something deeper than racism which kinda makes me feel like she does not get race relations. I say kinda because I obviously don't know her. She wants a reasoning for black face being unacceptable to please her audience. (Wtf to please her audience?) Anyway, how is racism not enough of a reason?"
"my advice to her would be if you don't know the answer, maybe you don't need to be the one trying to go around and educate other white folks who "don't get it." and relying on "comprehensive" "articulate" "pieces" (of what?) seems to me like she's looking for a good journal article to circulate, which brings up its own issues of what is a legitimate source of information. also does she really not know the history of blackface in particular? google that shit."
"Agreed! also, to add to D's point, why does she have to use "hyper-academic jargon"? Can't she just say that blackface is a remnant of one of the most overtly racist facets of pop culture in American history? The end? "
" Her comment irritates me specifically because it seems like her intentions are good, but if she doesn't understand why blackface is so much more than "cultural appropriation," I question her motives on why she's bothering taking part in the conversation at all. It's problematic to espouse a viewpoint that you don't actually hold or that you don't understand why you hold because it muddles the narrative and potentially does more harm than good. Listen first, then talk.
"Also, she needs to google that shit. Don't put it on facebook so that you can draw attention to the fact that you think blackface is bad. It's 2013, put your "I'm not a racist!" flag away and just don't be racist." - Elizabeth
Ouch. Not gonna lie, it stung a lot. Some of their responses were just reactions to the language in my post (for example, I didn’t want to implicate my brother on Facebook, so I used the term “audience,” which makes my motives seem much more authoritative than I meant them.) But some of the criticism was on point, and I was pretty embarrassed. None of these people know me (except Laura, who hasn’t known me personally in eight years) and yet they were judging so hard! I immediately went defensive.
Chapter 3: In which I try to defend myself, sort of: I chatted Laura about her feedback. Big picture, I’m glad she sent it. As we’ve discussed White Privilege Syndrome’s sneakiest strain is the assumption that the way you want to be interpreted is the way you will be interpreted. Julianne Hough ran into this fact with her Orange is the New Black costume, and clearly I was right there with her. While Laura and her friends’ interpretations of my post were not what I had intended, it doesn’t matter. Through their lens as women of color, which I do not share, my attitude towards the problem of blackface was read as appropriating, condescending, elitist, and ultimately offensive. I chatted Laura, and we discussed it further:
Me: i was hoping that someone (likely someone not white) had written an article or blog post explaining in their own words their experience with blackface, and i was hoping that by asking around, people would send me stuff precisely outside of the scope of what i read on a regular basi
Me: yep, that’s one of the ones that people sent me
Laura: i didn’t really like it though, because while i love rembert browne. i think it doesn’t really explain that that shit is straight up racist because racism exists and we live in a white supremacist society. white people have the privilege to put on faces and cultures for a minute and then go back to their whiteness that carries real advantages
Me: yes i agree
Laura: people of color have to dress up white and live in a white world everyday and we don’t get any of those advantages
Me: i’m pretty surprised by the reaction y’all had, but I’m really glad you brought it up
Laura: well it’s personal. it smacked of academia, it smacked of coming from a place of asking PoCs to explain racism
Me: right? because isn’t rule of privilege #1 recognizing that the way you intend your words to be heard isn’t the only the thing that matters context matters, history matters, the way you are interpreted matters too. so maybe a good lesson for me
Laura: also i think in the context of a lot of news and comments and things i’ve seen this halloween. people make a big deal about us moving towards a place and time when it’s not offensive because we’re all equal
Me: lol, not in our lifetime
Laura: and i think thats bullshit because this history is live and well and it’s not in the past its my living present
Me: yours and a lot of people’s
So that’s what happened. I still feel a little embarrassed by how little I thought about my original post, or the impact it might have on people who confront this issue in a non-academic way in their lives every single day. Feels a bit like getting caught with my pants down. I’m grateful to Laura for bringing it up, rather than just letting her friends rant about it without me ever knowing about the conversation that my post had started. We all need reminders from time to time.
Happy Halloween, y’all. Stay safe out there.
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