I promise this is not a post about blackface

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

Laura: http://www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/90797/how-to-be-a-white-person-on-halloween-hint-skip-the-blackface

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

Laura: truth

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.

Related Post: Effie Trinket does yoga.

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8 responses to “I promise this is not a post about blackface

  1. I can’t really speak directly to the reactions in this situation, but I’m Asian American, and if one of my white friends asked for a certain piece on white-washing, slanty eyes, or yellowface, I’d be more than happy to oblige. I get the criticisms, but I also don’t really see yelling at white allies as being constructive (unless they’re pulling a Tim Wise meltdown). Like it or not, white people in America tend to listen to other white people, and sometimes people of color get tired of explaining things, so I’m more than happy to have white allies speak to other white people about racism. In fact, I think that’s exactly the role white people should play in an antiracist movement, and I think Malcolm X would agree.

    • Totally agree with @therealaysiu. I recognize that racism is a very touchy subject backed by centuries of hate, and that, as a white person, I will never fully understand what it is like to be black in America. But what is the point of attacking people for trying to understand? I can certainly understand what it feels like to be discriminated against as a woman in a male-dominant society, and as an introvert forced to be extroverted bc of society. I am not saying these examples are comparable to the racism born of slavery, but I do think that we can at least sympathize through examining the roles we ourselves are forced into – and to come to a greater understanding of our country’s history and the roles we play in it.

      I’d also say to the author of this blog: don’t be so quick to abandon your opinion for fear of being called a racist. It’s important to continue a dialogue with people of all backgrounds, and every participant in the discussion should be able to back up his arguments with more than “because I said so”.

  2. Well done for admitting so publicly that you might have got something wrong. It’s only through our mistakes that we learn.

  3. aarongoggans

    I think the problem they were likely reacting to is not that Emily is was trying to understand. It seems likely, though I can’t speak for these women, that they are upset about another white person asking black people to explain racism to them. It seems to me that the difference between being black and being a woman in this regard is that men usually assume we understand women. Male privilege means that men have all the answers, unless they are emotional problems in which case the assumption is often women can’t explain their illogical feelings any way. With race, in my experience, many white people assume that race is something they don’t have and need a minority to explain to them. It assumes that all minorities think of these issues the same and ask a person to speak for their whole race. As a black kid growing up in a small white town, I had to explain to a lot of white people “the black point of view”. This is incredibly problematic and very traumatic for me and my siblings, I almost always react to such request with anger [internally at least] and have to decide if a can politely decline to “speak for my people.” It also assumes that as a white person you can hear my telling of it and understand and it allows you to be arbiter which racial experiences have merit. If I say something so out of one’s hypothetical paradigm one could dismiss it as some black dudes opinion.Personally, I think that posting a question to all of your facebook friends is different than putting on random person on the spot. It allows people to opt in or out and I think that makes all the difference. In order to understand other people’s experience, people have to be willing to explain it. I think the key is making sure people are willing and not forced or put on the spot.

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