Recent Blackface Issues are Microcosm of Larger Racial Problems

Reggie Fullwood 

by Reggie Fullwood

It is hard for most African Americans to imagine why any white person would think that it is perfectly OK to put black paint on their face and mimic being a Black person. It’s one thing to dress up like a specific character – say Michael Jackson during Halloween, but to simply use blackface to make fun of African Americans is unacceptable.

Not that anyone needs the history lesson, but the origins of blackface date back to the minstrel shows of mid-19th century. According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), “White performers darkened their skin with polish and cork, put on tattered clothing and exaggerated their features to look stereotypically ‘black.’ The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual.”

Of course these performances were meant to be funny to white audiences, but to black folks we always had issues with the belittling and spiteful acts.

Fast-forward to 2019, and it’s almost unbelievable that we are still talking about blackface and how disrespectful it is to African Americans. It is almost bizarre how a series of recent events have brought this issue to the forefront of American culture once again.

Recently, it was discovered that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook featured a picture of a man in blackface next to a person in a KKK outfit. Northam also admitted to wearing blackface to a party. Although Northam is a Democrat, party leaders are asking him to step down – especially African American elected officials in the state.

And it gets more bizarre in Virginia. In a separate incident, the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, also a Democrat, admitted to wearing blackface to a college party.

Northam has resisted calls to step down, but later admitted to darkening his face to resemble Michael Jackson during a dance contest in 1984.
Then there is the Gucci sweater blackface issue that recently blew up. Last week, Gucci stopped selling its $890 balaclava black-knit women’s sweater that could be pulled up over the lower half of the wearer’s face. The sweater included bright red lips as a cut-out for the mouth.

The sweater was being sold in Gucci stores and online before people became outraged via social media and denounced it as resembling blackface. I have to admit that when I first saw the sweater my initial thoughts were that this maybe an overreaction, but the more I thought about it the more troubling it became. The issue with many of these large international companies is a lack of diversity. Perhaps if the company had more minorities in leadership positions someone would have pointed out that the sweater maybe offensive to African Americans.
Gucci did issue a statement saying that the company “deeply apologizes for the offense caused.”

It added: “We are fully committed to increasing diversity throughout our organization and turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond.”

How about the Prada issue – I wasn’t aware of it until last week. Prada apologized in December of last year for bag charms and window displays featuring monkey-like characters with outsize red lips. Apparently, social media went crazy over the design because it too resembles blackface.
Several Black artist’s have publicly said that they are boycotting both Gucci and Prada and the movement seems to be growing via social media. Rapper/actor T.I., called for a boycott of both brands until they learn to value business from black customers.

On Twitter, he wrote, “If we stop buying ANYTHING they MUST correct any and ALL of our concerns. That’s THE ONLY WAY we can get some RESPECT PUT ON OUR NAME!!!!”

Filmmaker Spike Lee said he will no longer wear Prada or Gucci until the brands “hire some black designers.” Lee said on Instagram, “It’s obvious” that “they don’t have a clue” when it comes to “racist, blackface hateful imagery.”

According to Pew Research Center poll, barely more than a slight majority — 53% — of all American adults think it’s unacceptable for a white person to use blackface in a costume. Only 53 percent – that’s ridiculous.

Many Americans would rather not talk about race at all and prefer to insist that the past is the past and racial issues no longer exist. I know – funny right?

Some would go as far to say that color should be ignored all together. I have said time and time again that the concept of being “color blind” about race is fruitless. Why ignore color when we can simply accept, respect and embrace our cultural differences?

A study by the Kaiser Foundation several years back confirmed that one of the major problems with race relations in America is that we just don’t understand each other. In fact, this study showed what many African Americans already know – that a large number of whites have mistaken ideas about how blacks are faring in American society.

America has come a long way in the area of race relations, but clearly this country still has long way to go. “The struggle is much more difficult now because racism is more entrenched and complicated,” said Activist Angela Davis.

Signing off from a Black History Program at a Duval elementary school,
Reggie Fullwood

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