Blackface Isn’t a Compliment
This was originally published on The Establishment on October 24, 2016.
Be it Halloween or a convention, anytime there is an opportunity to costume or cosplay, the issue of skin color arises—specifically, the brown skin of Black people. White people believe that they can paint it on and wash it off with impunity. I’ve heard every excuse possible, from the “it’s harmless” to “my Black friend is okay with it” to “it’s a sign of how much I love the character.”
But regardless of how you wrap it in your head, blackface is not a compliment. It’s a dehumanizing insult that people literally paint themselves in and try to hustle other people into believing. That anyone can look at the history of Black people in America—hell, the world—and think that this is some kind of tribute only reflects how completely divorced they are from reality.
You see it in the cosplay community, any time a new brown-skinned character appears on the scene. White people and non-Black people of color promote the lie that skin-darkening is an attempt at authenticity. “It’s an inherent part of the character,” they say. “You should feel honored,” they say.
Why? Why should I feel honored? Do you think that you are doing me or any other Black person a favor? Why would you think that? What is it about wearing my skin color that makes you think you are doing something nice? Especially when so many Black people have spoken about how fucking insulting it is? Every year there are posts, essays, videos, podcasts talking about how terrible blackface is, and every year there’s a new crop of costumers crying victim when Black people tell them it’s wrong.
If you really want to honor me or any Black person, how about listening when we say that culture isn’t a costume, blackface isn’t okay, and it certainly isn’t a compliment. And then how about you stop doing that shit.
When you take a person’s characteristics and shrink them down to their skin color, you are promoting a dangerous way of thinking about people. This is a technique that has been used to dehumanize and destroy Black people for hundreds of years. You may claim to associate brown skin with strength of character, but historically it’s been used to say Black people are animals, criminals, primitive, and in need of strong discipline. To this day, white people interpret brown skin as dangerous and threatening. That is one of the reasons why police are so quick to use excessive violence to “subdue” us instead of just talking to us. Any movement we make is deemed threatening and they feel justified in using physical force to suppress it. This is a very real interpretation of my skin color, something over which I had no control.
It doesn’t matter that you see my brown skin as strength. It doesn’t matter if you see it as resilience. Strength and resilience are indeed traits I possess, but they’re traits that I’ve had to develop to compensate for the racist environment I live in. It doesn’t matter that you think my skin is beautiful. It doesn’t matter how many positive descriptors you load onto my Blackness—it doesn’t validate the dehumanizing aspect of it. This act of reducing my worth to my skin color is how stereotypes are made and doing it erases the complexity of human identity. It limits me to some finite list of characteristics that in many cases I’ve had to protect myself from—like the oversexed Jezebel stereotype that follows Black girls and women around, coloring their friendships and relationships throughout life and the angry Black woman stereotype that negatively affects how I’m regarded in the workplace.
Assigning specific behaviors and characteristics to skin color makes it easy for people to project their idea of what they think I am on me. They create the me they think I should be instead of actually getting to know who I am. I’ve gone to clubs and had white people approach me demanding that I show them how to dance because “everybody knows Black people can dance.” (For the record, I love dancing, but I’m terrible at it.) I’ve had men assume I was available because I was at the bar having drinks. I’ve had co-workers assume I’m violent because I was angry about something.
It is annoying and aggravating to constantly inform people to squash their assumptions. I’ve lost the expectation that new people will actually try to know me instead of projecting whatever their expectations of Black women are onto me. I’m not a caricature, and I’m not a costume to be put on—or a voice to be affected, so please don’t yell “yaaaaass girlfriend!” and then make strong eye contact for some affirmation that we are in the secret Black girl club. I don’t fucking talk like that and I sure as hell don’t appreciate either the projection or the mimicry.
These stereotypes are boring and trite, but more than that, they’re dangerous. Just ask 17- year old Trayvon Martin, 13-year old Tyre King, and 12-year old Tamir Rice—all murdered because of the assumptions someone’s overactive imagination projected on their skin.
This is what we Black people live with. We live with the knowledge that our skin, a superficial physical characteristic we were born with, has been tainted by white people. Marred by white people with power. Disparaged by white people who work to punish us for existing. Growing up, we learn that the people around us, the pale ones who burn in the sun, actively and passively suppress us, oppress us, and benefit from mistreating us. We learn that you lie in your heads and hearts about us, and then lie to our faces when you say we’re all human and equal.
American history does not agree with you and we are living in its toxic present. A present where white people continue to make dehumanization a social norm.
You wouldn’t skin someone and wear their skin. So ask yourself, what are you actually trying to do when you feel the need to darken your skin in order to costume as your favorite Black person or character? What are you saying when you claim that darkening your skin makes you feel closer to them, like you are embodying them? It’s like you’re trying to symbolically absorb them into you and replace them. You are trying to be them and that isn’t admiration. It’s psychological cannibalism and it’s sickening.
Is this type of behavior the modern-day descendant of colonialism? Is this constant cannibalism of other people, other cultures, until you absorb them at every level and become them feeding the inherited need to conquer, consume, and destroy?
I don’t know. What I do know is that absorbing us won’t make you into a better person. It doesn’t imbue you with the strengths you admire. It just feeds your sickness and masks your rot a little longer.