I’ve never been creative enough to come up with a Halloween costume weeks in advance. Other than a particularly impressive (to me, anyway) zombie hot dog eating contest champion outfit I meticulously crafted the first year my partner and I were together, our outfits are usually piecemeal. Hours before we’re due at a party or trick-or-treaters ring the bell, we frantically dig through our mishmash of old pieces from our days as theater geeks, cast-off clothes and long-outgrown kiddie masks to assemble some approximation of a costume.
For us, costume season anxiety begins and ends with trying to cobble together a passable outfit. But for people of color, attending a costume party or scrolling through social media during Halloween season can become a minefield. Every year, some ill-conceived costumes crop up that feature blackface. And it’s incredibly common: in a recent poll, one in five Americans reported having seen someone wearing blackface in person. It’s not just in poor taste to dress as someone from a different race; it’s downright offensive for the culture those outfits emulate, and plays on a storied and painful history of ridiculing non-white people.
But not all people who wear blackface for Halloween necessarily mean it to be racist. In a recent Pew Research poll, 34% of Americans said blackface in a Halloween costume is acceptable. That may be because many of us don’t think about the ramifications of our actions, or realize the historical precedent and deeply rooted racism behind these costumes. But as we learn, we can grow and try to do better next time. Here’s why blackface is a bad idea.
What blackface really means
Merriam Webster defines blackface as, “dark makeup worn (as by a performer in a minstrel show) in a caricature of the appearance of a black person,” or “a performer wearing such makeup.” The practice dates back to minstrel shows that were popular during the 1800s through the mid-20th century, especially in the United States. White actors performing in those shows used to rub their faces with shoe polish or greasepaint to impersonate and act out overblown racist stereotypes of Black people.
As the National Museum of African American History & Culture explains, those performances didn’t just mimic Black people — they created caricatures that distorted the features and culture of African Americans, including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character. That allowed white audiences to see Blacks as not only different but less than themselves, reinforcing the supremacy of their own skin tone and culture.
The blackface caricatures that became staples of the medium, like Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, and Jezebel, became so deeply rooted in the American imagination, that they carried over into other forms of entertainment and our society. Think Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix and the Amos and Andy radio show. According to C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the term “Jim Crow” actually came from minstrelsy. It’s typically used as shorthand for the anti-black segregation laws in place between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, and derives from an 1832 blackface minstrel character by Thomas D. Rice.
Blackface persists at all levels of society
Powerful people who should know better and college students looking for a laugh have all donned some form of blackface, even very recently. In “Majoring in Minstrelsy: White Students, Blackface and the Failure of Mainstream Multiculturalism,” Tim Wise found that during the 2006-2007 school year, at least 15 publicly known instances of costumes mocked another race or culture. Those included painting their skin in blackface and throwing a “ghetto party,” in which attendees were asked to wear gold chains and afro wigs and drink malt liquor. Others made fun of Latinx culture or other non-white people.
In addition, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau garnered criticism for appearing in blackface and brownface in the early 2000s and in 2019, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam both apologized for and denied posing in a 1984 medical yearbook photo wearing blackface, next to a man wearing KKK robes. He later admitted he’d also worn blackface when he dressed up as Michael Jackson. In October 2018, former NBC host Megyn Kelly defended wearing blackface as a Halloween costume, although she later apologized. A few months later, an elementary school principal in Pennsylvania got disciplined for wearing blackface. These are just a small sampling of examples.
Why blackface is wrong
Defenders of blackface often say their outfit is all in good fun and it isn’t hurting anybody. And in their immediate social circle, that may seem true. I’ll never forget a Halloween party I attended in which a friend’s brother appeared dressed as a Black Santa, complete with face paint. Even more shocking than his costume was the reaction – or rather, lack thereof – from my fellow entirely white partygoers. My then-boyfriend and I were so uncomfortable, we left almost immediately after he arrived, but I wish we’d said something in the moment. If asked, that brother would probably still find his costume funny today.
But the impact of blackface is no laughing matter. Philosopher Sylvia Wynter argues that the practice depicts Black people as unworthy of human dignity. Think about the costumes that generally use Blackface: thugs, gangsters, criminals, and other marginalized populations feature prominently. Even dressing up as a rapper often glorifies violence, and that just reinforces negative stereotypes in the popular imagination. That, in turn, has enabled many white people to justify treating Black people as less than human. It’s not a stretch to say that caricaturing Black people creates a moral justification for violence, so it should not be taken lightly.
Blackface includes other cultures, too
Costumes that portray other races aren’t off the hook, either. Outfits that rely on stereotypes of Native Americans, Japanese geishas, or Mexicans all paint those cultures as “other” or “exotic.” That enables us to separate them from our own experiences and, in the case of ceremonial Native American dress and geisha costumes, trivializes very real and culturally significant touchstones.
All of that calls into question why so many otherwise “good people” will let blackface slide. Research conducted by Philip S. S. Howard, of McGill University found that people who use blackface today often dress up that way to be “edgy” or to get a reaction. But dressing up as another race lets us make light of the role racism still plays in our society, reinforcing and ignoring its impact simultaneously.
As Howard wrote in The Conversation, “Efforts to defend blackface and justify other racist expressions erase the racism of the past and, crucially, protect the racism of the present.
They also serve to delegitimize Black opinion, and anyone who objects to racist humor.” By labeling those who decry blackface as too sensitive or politically correct, we dismiss the very real harm it does to BIPOC people. It’s time we all find another costume, one that keeps Halloween fun – for everyone.
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