Monday, October 26, 2015

Because Blackface Is Never A Good Idea

This morning, I noticed an article on that reported of an Alabama teacher who had posted pictures on Facebook from a costume party at which he dressed up as Kanye West, complete with dark brown makeup/pigment on his face. Around noon I discovered that the teacher, Heath Morrow, works at my son's school. No, he is not my son's teacher, but it did get my attention on several levels. For one, I sent the principal, who is a parishioner at our church, a text to tell her that I was praying for her and for her school and to offer to talk with her if she needs anything. Also, it made me consider in a closer-to-home sort of way what sort of teacher I want instructing my children. Because of that, I stopped to pray for Mr. Morrow, whom I do not know but who almost certainly has found himself the center of a lot of attention he would much rather avoid. Lastly, it made me stop and consider my reaction, others reactions, and where the real finger of blame should be pointing.

For starters, although I shouldn't need to say it, I want to be clear that I think blackface is wrong. Always. It is always a bad idea. Why? Because the practice of white people darkening their faces to appear like black people is grounded in a history of racism. For decades, white performers amused white audiences by pretending to be black--not to celebrate or imitate in a flattering sort of way the cultural distinctiveness of black people but to mock them, to overemphasize commonly held racist stereotypes, and to get a laugh from their peers at the expense of black people. To me, that seems to be a good enough reason for us to all agree that blackface is always wrong. It means a white person darkening his or her face in order to pretend to be black in any sort of humorous way--even if not to make fun of black people or to use stereotypical black images to get a laugh--is to borrow a piece of history that is forever tainted with racism. No matter how much you love black people, you cannot put on blackface with impunity. Imagine wearing a Nazi SS uniform to go trick-or-treating. No, it's not illegal (free speech is a real thing), but it's a terrible idea that expresses a failure to value the horrific experience of 8,000,000 victims and their families.

But is it always wrong? Might there moments when a genuine cultural reenactment of a moment that depends on racial differences could be enhanced by a particular person putting on dark brown makeup to play the role of a dark-skinned individual? Could a teacher ever wear an historically accurate Nazi uniform to show his or her class what it looked like as an educational experience? Maybe. But even the NY Metropolitan Opera has agreed that casting Othello in blackface isn't necessary for the integrity of the performance, and I think the rest of us can follow suit. Some moments from the past should stay in the past.

Perhaps Mr. Morrow is a big fan of Kanye West. Perhaps he wasn't being funny at all. Maybe he really wants to support Mr. West's supposed bid for president in 2020, as the sign he is holding in the picture suggests: "Kayne for Prez 2020." Maybe he had no intention of making anyone laugh because he was pretending to be black, but it doesn't matter. He should know better.

Yes, context is everything. In his apology, Mr. Morrow called the incident "an error in judgment." Indeed it was. But, whether his choice of costume represents a one-time mistake or a pattern of racist behavior on his part, the problem is the same: we live in a culture that is largely ignorant of our racist history. Even accidental or unintentional or incidental racism is still racism. That it never occurred to Mr. Morrow that wearing blackface was wrong is the real problem, and I don't blame him for it. I blame myself. I blame all of us.

I want my children to be taught by people who are sensitive to the nuances of history. Even though my children are white, I want them to go to a school where every child feels like she or he has an equal opportunity to learn. I don't want them to sit next to a classmate who knows first-hand the pain of having a teacher who is ignorant of the racist implications of the social media posts he made over the weekend. I want to meet with the parents of the black students in Mr. Morrow's class so that I can ask them how it feels to send their children back to school. And I want to do all of that, not to point a finger of blame at Mr. Morrow, but to confess my own participation in this culture that denies the full cost of racism on its citizens of color.

I am part of a community in which it is not obvious to 100% of the people that blackface is a bad idea; therefore, I am a part of the problem. Until we can all see the pain of our racist past, we have no right to move on as if it didn't happen or doesn't still matter. As a member of the majority culture and one who is the beneficiary of unearned privilege, it's my job to remind my children and my parishioners and my friends and anyone who will listen that there is still much work for us to do. Don't blame Mr. Morrow. Learn with him from the mistake we have all made.


  1. This is to me both very touching as a response to stigma, and very interesting.
    Touching because it is so exactly right about what stigma is, and I am grateful for the model of a prayerful response.
    Interesting because I live in a country where racism is, though part of our history, not as big an issue as in the US. I'm afraid I had never even heard of "blackface" as a noun in this sense -- but that does show my ignorance. Conversely, I read a book on stigma recently which brought home to me that EVERYONE gets stigmatised for something -- indeed for several things. Everyone is either too old or too young or too fat or too thin or has the wrong colour hair or skin or sexual orientation or relationship status or something to make them fit into a socially less acceptable category. So when does it become a really big deal? I guess, as you say, when it has left a massive, really dehumanising and indeed deathly imprint on lives? Though even the littler stigmas can hurt individuals that much too. I like your response of prayer. In prayer we are all one before God, and there is no difference. I am also grateful for your reminder that we have to be sensitive to the collective history of those with whom we live, as well as their individual histories. Thank you.
    And finally, this is a beautiful "opening of blind eyes" through prayer. I like it that you take seriously our own blindness, and it is in your response of prayer that light comes. I'm not trying to flatter you. But I am grateful. Bless you.


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