Blackface: The Problem, The Deeper Problem, The Next Step

Costumes which include blackface have emerged as a national epidemic. Some people admit applying blackface years ago and then expect praise, as though their admission makes them less accountable, even admirable, entitled to a free pass. Some want their costumes dismissed as youthful indiscretions (far from anything they’d do now in their present state of enlightened maturity) — like smoking pot before meeting a friend’s parents, or eating five desserts. But blackface should never be dismissed as no big deal. Blackface is motivated by underlying racism, an active expression of bigotry, perpetuating racial inequality. 

Although we’re not born bigots, we are born into a culture of bigotry. It’s in our blood, in the air we breathe, overt and covert, glaring and subtle. Every gender, every religion, every racial heritage — nobody is granted exempt status from carrying bigoted assumptions. However (and it’s a big HOWEVER), white folks are granted privilege beyond any other racial heritage in the United States. This means that as a white person, I need to be especially aware of the ways that I’ve been coached, from the cradle, to take for granted the privilege of our racial heritage. Each one of us needs to take a careful look in the mirror, an emotional-x-ray, and examine our assumptions with stark honesty.

The following paragraph is an excerpt from my novel Tightwire. The story follows a therapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. In Chapter 19, “Halloween,” Collier (the adult, male patient) describes to Caroline (the therapist) a Halloween pageant he attended with a couple, at the their children’s elementary school. Collier is caught off guard by the casual, thoughtless, pervasive bigotry of the costumes. 

“I counted three girls dressed as Asian people, with black wigs and Kimonos and one wore these fake rotting teeth. They spent the day screeching their heads off, flipping their R’s and L’s. Some parents wore the teeth alone, like their costume was someone who couldn’t afford an orthodontist. Two boys were dressed as gang members, with fake dreadlocks, black make-up and rubber knives. Two mothers dressed in leather and chains. They spiked their hair and walked around with their arms linked….and they said they were a lesbian couple….Four kids…dressed as fat people, and one girl whose father is a fashion photographer, dressed as a person with bad taste in clothes.”

Years ago, as I began to write this chapter, I paused and remembered the Halloween costumes at my children’s elementary school. I thought back to the costumes from my own childhood. Each “fictional” costume in this chapter was modeled after a “real” costume I had seen.

As you read this post, did you assume that the couple at the elementary school was straight, a cis man and a cis woman, parenting their two children? In fact, they’re two women, a lesbian couple. If you made that assumption, please pause. If you’re willing to grow and learn, then don’t rush away from the issue. Instead, hold still, try not to thrash, take a deep breath. Allow yourself to react to your own assumption. Ask yourself what it means about your mindset. Take as much time as you need. It’s okay to feel off-balance as you sort it out. Then you’ll be able to move forward, with a changed perspective. 

The first step toward change is awareness, and I’m committed to raising awareness. So I’ll finish writing this piece, edit my work from start to finish, and post it. Then I’ll pause, take a deep breath. I’ll take a careful look in the mirror, an emotional-x-ray, and examine my assumptions with stark honesty.

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