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Blackface in America: Whitewashing Black Anger

Blackface has made a renaissance in America in recent weeks and months. Well, it made a renaissance in the sense that it has made another go-round in politics, fashion, and entertainment becoming another manifestation of willful racial ignorance and ineptitude (others are police shootings, doing anything while black, etc.).

In the last few months blackface has been at the forefront for due to the Virginia political scandal involving Democratic Governor Ralph Northam and his medical school yearbook photograph featuring someone (allegedly not him) in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Governor Northam later stated that he wore shoe polish (read: blackface) to win a dance contest as Michael Jackson (and he had the nerve to contemplate doing the moonwalk at the press conference — bless his heart). Also, Democratic Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to using blackface in school. Furthermore, in fashion, Gucci had released a black sweater with a balaclava piece that had red around the mouth evoking the image of a golliwog; which is reminiscent of the 2016 Moncler bomber jacket with a blackface patch (Sidenote: I went to get a milkshake yesterday and saw a white woman with a non-racist Moncler jacket and gave a her an uncomfortable side eye to let her know that I know). As for entertainment, Emma Hallberg and several other social media personalities have been accused of blackfishing, or using skin darkeners to appear black in their photos. None of these examples are shocking given, both, the current tinderbox of race relations in America provoked by whites and non-blacks across the country who are emboldened by fearmongers like President Donald Trump or who hide behind the ignorance (willful or not) of white liberal cultural (i.e., “I don’t see race.”); or, because blackface has a cyclical reinventive history in America of coming back into public consciousness overtly or covertly through entertainment, fashion, politics, etc. The evidence lies in cases of minstrelsy dating back to vaudeville to Mickey Mouse to Black Coal and de Sebben Dwarfs to Amos ’N’ Andy to golliwog dolls to blackface parties and costumes to blackfishing on social media.

Blackface and its lineage have always been here and will likely be here for years to come because it is as American as apple pie. I say that because the racial discrimination and subjugation of blacks has been deeded in ink in the United States Constitution and its forerunning documents like the Articles of Confederation. Despite having been on this continent centuries before any white explorer, black people’s lot was definitively cast once they were deemed three-fifths of a human being and as chattel in writing. That deed, in ink, manifested itself into a mindset then as a culture then as an industry then as institutional systems from which anchored the growth and prosperity of this nation. The deed, through adjudication in courts and ultimately amended, was too entrenched and birthed a wholly formed society for which later generations and tertiary industries such as entertainment, politics, criminal justice, housing, healthcare, education, and more has been established around the deed and its core principles. This deed has been in the trust of white society and will remain so because they are also the primary, if not sole, beneficiary. The deed was never meant to benefit all despite the words “We the People” — it was meant to enumerate a single winner, produce a diverse pool of losers, and the casting of spoils from there. The only interest or dividend that we, black people, have “gained” from this deed is stress and delay — delayed freedom, delayed citizenship, delayed enfranchisement, delayed integration, delayed upward mobility, delayed criminal justice reform, delayed representation, and many more delays to come. Ironically, the guarantor of this deed is America itself in its promise of being a place where through hard work anyone can achieve anything and that it is the greatest nation on Earth. However, the things that the deed stripped away from blacks are not things that can be earned by working harder or smarter to become enumerated rights; rather they are rights that are endowed in everyone at birth, they are implied rights not because of a shared appearance as much as due to a shared humanity.

Going back to stress as an interest payment to black folks from the deed, I say stress as well as irritation, for my generation, moreso than anger. Anger was the interest given to previous generations which led to slave rebellions, Black Wall Street, historically black colleges, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Panther Party to mention a few. However, with my generation to be raised by the first generation unencumbered by segregation, we grew up at the birth of the post-racial or “colorblind” theory; and, subsequently, that anger has dulled into stress and irritation by the trappings of prosperity (read: capitalism) and integration (more like transitioning away from overt redlining). The stress and irritation we encounter is based on the willful ignorance or persistent microaggressions of whites and non-blacks alike. It is based on the perception that because we are not enslaved or segregated that what was once our is open to “the culture” and this appropriation or subtle racism is moot. This perpetuates the practice that black culture has become the basis for American culture as long as there are not black folks actually engaging in this culture. But, is this based on a belief that having one black person creates a diverse setting rather than casting us on islands because some believe that having one better than none, right? The stress and irritation are based on no longer having identifying markers for those who wish you physical and emotional ill because they are no longer confined to organizations or parties — the liberal white “ally” with their #blacklivesmatter social media posts can put you in the sunken place faster through their real-life actions (or inactions) than any Dixiecrat or MAGA follower could. The stress and irritation comes from words like “articulate,” “clean cut,” and more go beyond the confines of compliments to weaponization and subjugation. The stress and irritation come from when we have been pitted against each other for so long that we forget that rather than getting out of the barrel the crabs are still fighting over who goes first and where and how — we have seen it through black overseers and slave catchers, black informants, black Republicans, OJ Simpson, and more. This anger, stress, and irritation has a cumulative weathering affect and it has made us tired to the point of apathy. I have come to call these sorts of experiences such as a blackface as being a case of “whites whiting at all-time highs.”

Nonetheless, this stress and irritation borne by my generation and the deed of its origination does not have to be the end all be all. Just this past Friday, two sister-friends and I had a successful dinner conversation with like-minded black young professionals in Cleveland. “Food for Thought,” as we branded it, started last week with 13 folks gathered in a living room eating great food and drinking win commiserating over the shared and unique experiences we have had — whether its asking how black we can get at work or why the rent is higher than a mortgage or when will older leaders pass the baton to us to lead in the community and at work or just telling our own personal stories. We were able to connect with others and relate and build a sense of community and support that social media alone cannot do. It was a true safe space. That is more of what we need and it can be done by anyone. The three of us created it in a group text and planned it fully the day before via text without any sponsorship or organizational support. That is why grassroots efforts like this and others across the country must make themselves known and build a community amongst themselves to help connect those in need to support, rather than act like individual gatekeepers to their own brand of transcendence. And, it is through this imperfect collaborative solution that we learn of America’s imperfections and opportunities. By addressing the imperfections and seizing the opportunities, particularly in regards to race, we see that America truly has always been the greatest nation on Earth, even if it is imperfect.

Cleveland | 30 | Seeking to make small change with my words and thoughts. More material available on The East by West

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