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Alfonso Robinson Why blackface is dehumanizing

February 17, 2019

Ten years ago, I had the privilege to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama, a profound moment in my life where I and millions of people of color had a sense of hope and optimism when it came to race relations in our country.

Over the next 10 years, between endless reports of racial injustice, discrimination, and hostility against people of color, the sense of hope and optimism quickly evaporated and was replaced with a sense of sadness and despair. Recent reports of elected officials in Virginia and Florida admitting to donning blackface in their youth, and the inability for many in our society to grasp the detrimental impact this dehumanizing tradition has had on our nation only adds salt to the wound.

Thankfully, most people don’t need a history lesson regarding why blackface is a dehumanizing expression of hatred and racial superiority. In short, if you’re interested in not being labeled as a symbol of racism for the rest of your life, then don’t wear blackface — just don’t do it. Here’s why.

Blackface is not about smearing shoe polish on your face. The origins of blackface can be traced to the late nineteenth century when the systematic oppression and marginalization of people of color was commonplace.

From Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and Bing Crosby, to Gene Wilder, Billy Crystal, and Robert Downey Jr., entertainment performers who donned blackface not only contributed in the mocking of people of color, but reinforced the notion that African-Americans were an inferior race. In the absence of the education of racial history, pop culture stereotypes associated with blackface comedy directly contributed to the acceptance of white superiority in our society.

Within this environment, we now discover that elected officials joined in the dehumanizing spectacle during their younger years and failed to acknowledge their shortcomings until their acts became public.

In Dr. David J. Leonard’s piece for HuffPost, the Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University accurately characterized students who donned blackface as individuals who, “feel they have the right to mock and degrade black and brown people. Moreover, because the longer history of blackface is neither taught in schools nor discussed intelligently in the mainstream media, these spectacles also reflect widespread ignorance about the social, political, and cultural implications of minstrelsy.”

This act of blatant racism by elected officials should be universally condemned, but due to our nation’s history with the form of entertainment, a segment of our society has been conditioned to view blackface as not as serious as a cross burning or images of lynching. For many people of color, the acceptance of blackface entertainment is the main contributor to people’s belief that the degrading and stereotyping of a race is acceptable behavior.

Blackface is not acceptable behavior. An elected official not acknowledging and asking forgiveness for their contribution to this destructive and dehumanizing behavior (before their shame becomes public) should not be acceptable, no matter the individual’s political affiliation.

Consider this food for thought the next time when you think about shoe polish on an elected official’s face.

Alfonso Robinson, a Danbury resident, is publisher of the HatCityBLOG. Follow him on Twitter @ctblogger.