September 30, 2019

DZODZOMENYO | What You’re Probably Missing About Blackface

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s re-election campaign was thrust into chaos last week when decades-old photos emerged of the self-proclaimed “woke” PMILF wearing culturally imitative costumes and brown and black face paint. Canadians of all colors withdrew their support and expressed shock, betrayal, scorn and disgust. I, on the other hand, felt there were bigger fish to fry.

I don’t think what Trudeau did actually deserves the level of attention it’s been getting. The vast majority of people, whether or not they protested, didn’t seem to understand what was wrong with his actions, the history that underlies them and, most importantly, how likely they are to have committed a similar offense sometime that past week.

Now, hear me out — I’m not excusing Trudeau’s actions. There are glaring issues with white people wearing blackface or brownface; many of them overlooked. But I don’t think the punishment fits the crime. In fact, our understanding of the crime may not even be complete. Blackface isn’t just about donning face paint and pretending to be someone of another race. The literal act of putting darker pigment onto a non-dark person’s skin — that act in and of itself is meaningless.

Last Halloween, as co-chair of diversity and inclusion for my (87 percent white) sorority, I had to help craft an email about costume guidelines for Halloween. However, I soon realized that while wearing someone’s culture as a costume is gauche, insensitive and unfunny, many of the routine transgressions that distress the various cultural and ethnic groups in question were happening around the clock.

The issue with something like blackface is the spirit that underlies it: The caricaturization of black people and the overall exploitation of blacks — their cultural artifacts, their features, their speech, etc., in media and popular culture — otherwise known as minstrelsy, is something I see non-black people doing every day. Blackface was, at one point, the most blatant form of minstrelsy. So while I’m glad no one wore blackface last Halloween, the exploitation of targeted cultures is more than just appropriation of physical features or garments. The stuff is pervasive in our society, and if we want to get anywhere, we gotta pay critical attention more of the time — not just attack grown-up frat boys for doing grown-up frat boy shit.

On the surface level, blackface invokes memories of a deeply painful history, but it also highlights a well-built hegemonic structure of white supremacist power that persists today. Initially, I hesitated to use terms like “white people this” and “white people that.” Who in their right mind would listen to such a direct critique? But the truth is that this is a problem only white people can change. While no white person I know would identify as a white supremacist, we exist within a reality of white supremacy. Through slavery, “exploration,” colonization and the brutal enforcement of their own perceived racial superiority, white people created the limits and structures of the world, and specifically the culture we inhabit today.

This means that even if you didn’t architect a culture that does not value or respect black people (i.e., the “Well I never owned slaves!” fallacy), that well-built structure isn’t going to unbuild itself. We (and by we, I mean Wypipo Everywhere) are going to have to do a lot more than just not wear blackface or say the n-word with an “r.” White people being able to don blackface is only a minor symptom of white supremacy, which, by the way, is a reality of our culture, and not a fringe personality trait. The problem remains that white people are still the only people in our society with the latitude to freely define how themselves and others are portrayed.

Beyond this, most of us, even at Cornell, operate in spaces so segregated by race and class that even if we wanted to, we could not see the most damaging effects of these issues on the people we are exploiting. Feelings of transient offense aside, members of the communities in question aren’t directly affected by a costume — that’s not new. These days, they suffer economically greater than anything. Exhibit A is intellectual property, where people in power and privilege profit off borrowed cultural capital — from the appropriation of rights to music production, from fashion trends to the NCAA. Black male college basketball players, for example, represent the face of Big 10 basketball, bringing in revenue and promoting brand recognition for universities — yet they are not sufficiently compensated for their labor, and the overwhelming influence of tertiary education reaches black Americans last.

Sportswear companies like Nike track trends among young African Americans as culture-setting indicators for the wider population with the confidence they’ll be readily consumed — and yet all the money and support black Americans continue to offer the brand never sees its way back to the black community. Exploitation in the form of stolen profits and borrowed clout hurts racial minorities who are already financially disenfranchised against the backdrop of the racial wealth gap.

This is what’s frustrating: People tend to draw a line at cartoonish racism, pat themselves on the back and then say, “ok, I’m good, we can stop here.” But the caricaturization of black people and their cultures has become so normalized to the white American mind that we lack the clarity to critique it. And even that is a small piece of the challenge of maintaining public dignity as a black person in a world that disparages and demonizes blackness.

I think if I weren’t black, I would also have a hard time challenging racism that isn’t cartoonish or graphic. I don’t think I go a day at Cornell without hearing someone disparage or stereotype black American people — all the while, laying claim to their music at parties and in their cars, producing and consuming media that caricatures blackness (Vine, anyone?) and co-opting the vernacular of these groups. It’s comically easy to make superficial advances toward cultural competence, yet it’s so normal for white people to imitate and mock African American vernacular English, an example of a routine action that adds to the negative characterization of black people.

Abstaining from that “Rasta Jamaican Island Princess w/ Dreadlocks Wig” Halloween costume is not in itself virtuous or restorative, and the fact that white people think it is points to a bigger problem. Yes, the customs of Caribbean American people are other-ized to the extent that Party City makes farce of them, but we can’t stop with that realization. In the same way, I appreciate dreadlock wigs not being used, but I’d love it a lot more if black women didn’t earn 61 cents on every white man’s dollar because we’re perceived as ghetto for hairstyles white suburban teens adopt when convenient.
Repairing and restoring dignity to historically marginalized people is going to require a deeper digging into the consciousness, and is often far from easy. Oftentimes, the easiest or most apparent things are sensationalized — but as a person of an identity that is very much subject to this, I can tell you: Halloweekend is not the only weekend that I go out and am deeply troubled by what I see and hear. It’s about so much more than not wearing a whack Halloween costume — that is not restorative justice, that’s just being decent.

Edem Dzodzomenyo is a senior in the College Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at edemjayne@cornellsun.com. Ed’s Declassified appears every other Tuesday this semester.