Blackface is Whiteness at Work

Originally produced for Varsity.

After seeing a(nother) picture of white South African students dressed up in blackface on my Facebook feed, I’ll admit I lost it a bit. By “a bit”, of course, I mean I was apoplectic with boiling seas of rage. We, as white folk, need to stop doing stuff like this.

Firstly, all the disclaimers in Jordan’s article apply here too. I am a white man and so everything I have to say, down to the very fact that I am allowed to say it, comes dripping with privilege.

Now, let’s have a chat about race. Oh, you mean that thing that we made up to justify slavery, colonialism and capitalism? Yes, that one.

Here’s the thing – race is a long-lasting social construct. Any Humanities student can tell you that. Your skin colour – I can’t believe I have to reiterate this – does not determine your value as a human being.

But despite the fact that we literally pulled it out the ends of our thumbs, the idea of “race” still exists. People are still socialised to behave a certain way because of the racial demographic that they’ve been told they fall into.

This is still today’s reality. Our present is determined by our past history of centuries of colonialism and apartheid and other ridiculous forms of segregation. We’re not going to erase that any time soon. This particular global history also means that white people and whiteness are rewarded over blackness.

Okay, but now onto the issue at hand. The history of blackface is particularly troubling, but it boils down to this: white people didn’t want black actors to be a thing so instead they dressed up white actors as black characters. These characters also tended to be one-dimensional racial stereotypes and caricatures like “the happy slave”.

So when you dress up as a black person and put on black make-up – or in this case, shoe polish – you are emulating this history. Now, besides the fact that the theme of the party these guys went to was “Twins” and the Williams sisters are not, in fact, twins, did they really need the black make-up? Do you know how many other sisters play pro tennis and are instantly recognisable pop culture symbols? None.

I get that being offensive was not their intention, but that’s almost entirely irrelevant. The impact of your actions trumps the intention behind them. I can intend to just pull out of a parking bay, but if I run over a pedestrian that I couldn’t see in the process, no one would contend that their death was the most important part of the scenario.

Burman and Bartlett are only a symptom of a much larger societal illness. They are articulating the whiteness that pervades society and which allows for people like me to take on all the exciting, “interesting” parts of blackness, without ever having to live through all the macro and micro aggressions that black people have to live through because of their race.

What blackface does is reduce a whole person’s experience and life to the token characteristic of their skin colour.

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