Why White People Can’t Quit Blackface
October 31, 2013
Before I saw those pictures of her online Monday morning I didn’t know who Julianne Hough was, and even after Googling her, I’m still not entirely sure. Ballroom dancer and country music singer? Which is it, Julianne, did you have a hit song or were you just on Dancing With the Stars? In any case, this weekend Julianne learned an important lesson in the life of the demi-celebrity, which is that there’s a downside to being constantly photographed: when you screw up—say, by donning blackface to dress as your favorite Orange is the New Black character—everybody sees it. Next thing you know, people on Twitter are calling you racist and bloggers are questioning your professional accomplishments. Who has time for that? Not Julianne Hough, who no doubt has a voice and/or samba lesson to get to.
I believe Hough’s sad, bewildered apology for her mistake was sincere. As a person of color, I don’t feel angry about her tasteless Halloween getup, I just feel sort of confused. I don’t think she chose the costume with conscious racist intent, but nonetheless, she chose it, and in doing so voluntarily transgressed one of the most clearly articulated rules of American race relations: white people don’t get to wear blackface, ever. Not ironically, not humorously, not in homage (sorry, Julianne). Yet it’s almost an annual ritual, this public shaming of blindsided whites who, despite mountains of available evidence showing that blackface is a punishable offense, at some point in mid-October just shrug their shoulders and decide to go for it.
White people: this is such an easy mistake to avoid.Your choice of Halloween costume is as silly and inconsequential as it gets, whereas defying such a culturally significant prohibition will always be extremely consequential. So—besides a willful blindness to some pretty basic facts of American history—why all the unforced errors? I’m not talking about the racists who knowingly use blackface to demean. Those people are gross, but at least I understand their motives. What’s bizarre is that the mild-mannered, well-intentioned Julianne Houghs of the world can be so clueless in their persistent attachment to a behavior that is at once so trivial and so serious.
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