Blackface and the Fine Art of Retroactive Repudiation

The past few months have seen a wave of scandals involving blackface.

First there was Megyn Kelly, the news anchor who observed that in her youth it was considered okay to paint your face black so long as it was for a costume. The comment prompted NBC to cancel her show. Then there was the rediscovery of a two-year-old video showing a pair of preteen girls at a sleepover imitating monkeys while wearing dark face makeup. Their schoolmates responded to the video with a mass “sit-in” to protest racism. And most recently, politicians and media figures have asked Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia to resign in light of an image that resurfaced from his medical-school yearbook depicting two costumed men, one wearing blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. (Northam initially admitted to being in the picture but did not specify which costume he was wearing. He has since denied being in the picture at all.)

In the context of American history, it’s easy to see why blackface rubs so many of us the wrong way. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, white actors would routinely don blackface to play black characters in minstrel shows. Shameless in their promulgation of racist stereotypes, such shows exemplified the culture of white supremacy that dominated America for most of its history.

In response to this ugly chapter of our past, some commentators have proposed a retroactive zero-tolerance policy toward anyone who has ever worn blackface. For example, here’s Jamelle Bouie, a newly hired columnist for the New York Times:

In other words, blackface is so thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism that we should expect immediate condemnation of politicians and public figures who have any association with it, even if it’s a decades-old offense.

One problem with Bouie’s uncompromising stance is this: A policy that condemns public figures who have had “any association” with blackface would thin out the supply of reputable public figures rather quickly. Comics and movie stars would be the first to get “canceled.” Jimmy Fallon did blackface to impersonate Chris Rock; Jimmy Kimmel did it to impersonate Karl Malone and Oprah Winfrey; SNL’s Fred Armisen did it to impersonate President Obama; Ashton Kutcher did brownface to depict a stereotypical Indian man in a Popchips commercial; Robert Downey Jr. wore blackface in Tropic Thunder; Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson, who play “Mac” and “Dee” on the critically acclaimed sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, have both donned blackface in the show.

And there’s no reason to stop at the living. As demonstrated in a recent New York Times op-ed, “‘Mary Poppins’ and a Nanny’s Shameful Flirting with Blackface,” the grave provides no protection from the professionally offended class. To that end, perhaps we should posthumously repudiate Judy Garland (of Wizard of Oz fame), Gene Wilder (of Willy Wonka fame), and Shirley Temple (of Shirley Temple’s Storybook fame), all of whom did blackface.

In the sphere of music, we could start by “canceling” living artists such as Joni Mitchell, continue by denouncing deceased artists like Frank Zappa, and then finish by boycotting the Metropolitan Opera for portraying Othello in blackface until as recently as 2015.

At the risk of giving the Twitter mob too many ideas, I’ll stop there. But suffice it to say that the list goes on.

Anyone uncomfortable with the liquidation of much of America’s artistic class should reject the idea of a retroactive zero-tolerance policy toward blackface. Instead, we should take a more measured approach, one that, without minimizing the ugly legacy of minstrelsy, allows a modicum of mercy for the accused and accounts for the intentions of the transgressor.

We should also recognize the fact that “blackface” is an umbrella term. It covers everything from a white adult performing a nauseatingly racist caricature of a black person, to a pair of 12-year-old girls — who had probably never heard the word “minstrelsy,” much less studied the history of minstrelsy — having fun with makeup at a sleepover. That the same word is used in the media to describe both scenarios should not obscure the fact that, ethically speaking, they belong in separate universes.

We should also consider the idea that blackface need not be considered radioactive for all time. Such was the position taken by Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategist and the chief organizer of the March on Washington. In 1951, referring to blackface, he wrote:

I think the time will come in the future when the Negro will be accepted into the social, economic, and political life of our country when it will no longer be dangerous to do this sort of thing, and then, of course, we would not be opposed to minstrels per se.

Rustin recognized the deep hurt that minstrelsy caused in his day. But he did not see this as an eternal reality. He hoped that attitudes toward blackface would evolve over time in the same way that attitudes toward Irish jokes had evolved. He wrote:

In certain parts of New York City 75 years ago anyone would have been beaten up on the street if he told an Irish joke because at that time the Irish in New York were considered an undesirable minority and were struggling for a kind of equality. Today, however, because the Irish are now accepted and integrated, Irish jokes are told freely with the Irish themselves laughing quite as much as anyone else.

Having been arrested 23 times on account of his activism, Rustin probably understood racism more viscerally than any living activist you could name. Nevertheless, his goal, like King’s, was for everyone to play by the same social rules. For Rustin, this meant that if black people could do whiteface, then white people could do blackface.

Some will object: America is not post-racial. We are not there yet, and until we get there, invoking the logic of color blindness is simply denying history.

But the logic of color blindness doesn’t depend on the absence of racism. It depends only on our desire not to needlessly racialize the pursuit of justice. Moreover, those who say “we are not there yet” rarely specify what would count as evidence of our having gotten “there.” Indeed if nothing would or could count as evidence of our arrival, then saying “we are not there yet” is merely a surrender to eternal outrage. Such people are less concerned with making racial progress than they are addicted to the struggle for its own sake. In any event, the best way to never arrive “there” is to “cancel” anyone who questions how far we have to go.

Let the professionally offended class continue their Noble Struggle. But don’t give them dominion over the public sphere.

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