The last time blackface rode into town, the showdown ended with Megyn Kelly losing her job at NBC Today and disappearing from television. But not without lawyering up and collecting a reported $30 million due on the remaining two years of her $69 million contract. That’s how much the network wanted to put an end to the controversy.
Now Blackface is back and ready for another showdown. Will Governor Northam of Virginia lose his job over blackface and Ku Klux Klan images in his medical school yearbook? Will Justin Fairfax, the African-American Lt. Governor, next in line for the top job, be impeached over sexual assault allegations? Can Virginia's attorney general come out of this mess unscathed after revealing that he too has worn blackface? What about Katy Perry's shoes and Gucci's blackface sweater? Or Cindy Sherman's controversial "Bus Rider" series, which became known in the art world as "Cindygate"?
And what about Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, and Jimmy Fallon, who have also resorted to blackface in order to keep the masses entertained? Or the dozens of other American entertainers listed on this Wikipedia entry?
Is there no one who can rid us of this egregious insult once and for all?
Apparently not, argues this Op-ed in the New York Times by a professor at Miami University in Ohio. Blackface, he says, is too ingrained in American pop culture. Here are three reasons why: 1) Minstrel history is not taught in schools. 2) The entertainment industry has made too much money from the negative stereotyping of African Americans through blackface. 3) Generations of moviegoers have drunk this Kool-Aid, which has seeped into every vein and fiber of their being.
In other words, according to this argument, blackface is in America’s DNA like a recessive gene or a genetic predisposition to certain diseases.
The good news about genetic predisposition is that it doesn’t have to manifest. You don’t have to die of heart failure because your father did. Not if you get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and stop smoking. You don’t have to get Type 2 Diabetes either. Eat a balanced meal, watch your portion sizes, exercise, get rid of excess weight—and you’ll outlive even the closest family member who might have succumbed to the disease.
Surely the same can be said of blackface. Aren’t there any preemptive steps that could keep this culprit out of town? Why not begin by teaching it in schools? How about not laughing when a classmate or colleague tells a racist joke? If you did it in the past, why not apologize and own up to it. Sarah Silverman, for example, has done just that, adding that her contribution to the ongoing insult was “aggressively stupid” and “racist.”
WHICH BRINGS US TO A STICKING POINT: WHAT IS RACISM?
Writing for the February 12 issue of The Atlantic, Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, stated that “we should begin by developing clarity and direction that can come only from definitions. Kendi is a professor and Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His article in The Atlantic offers a reading list for Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam and anyone else who wants to understand the issue. Interestingly, one of the books on that list is Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, by James Farmer, Jr., a riveting account of how black politicians in major cities pushed tough-on-crime initiatives that contributed to the over-policing of black communities and the mass incarceration of African Americans. Farmer's book won the Pulitzer Prize. Kendi's won the National Book Award.
WHITE WOMEN FIGHTING OVER MEGYN KELLY ON INSTAGRAM
When I wrote about Megyn Kelly’s blackface travesty last year, my Instagram account exploded with commentary that proved why Kendi’s call for definitions is so important. I discovered two things from that experience, which at one point digressed into a shouting match between two self-identified white women on different sides of Team Megyn, ending with one of them breaking down in tears.
Other Caucasian commenters complained that political correctness has gone too far, that “some people” got their feelings hurt so now poor Megyn has to lose her job, and that innocent whites are being victimized by racist actions of the past.
The first thing I discovered was that almost no one actually read the article. Like other contentious issues in today’s culture of polarization, the responders already had a knee-jerk point-of-view, which they couldn’t wait to share on social media. The subject was as hot as fatback on an open flame. People popped off readymade opinions gleaned from what they’d heard elsewhere. Even if the only thing they knew about the subject was in a headline.
The second thing I discovered was that no one seemed to know the definition of racism. The word gets thrown around like pizza dough, but what is it?
The definition of racism offered by the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Center takes the form of an equation.
Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power
Do people like Megyn Kelly, Jimmy Fallon, and Sarah Silverman have power? Of course, they do. They have platforms of influence in the media. Millions of viewers know who they are, identify with them, and follow them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Certainly a governor, police officer, the president, members of Congress, and any other public authority figure has power. By the definition above, all have access to communications and resources to reinforce racial prejudice.
What about the rest of us? Doesn't it stand to reason that when we participate in, contribute to, or otherwise support racists and racist structures, we are racist too?
BAMBOOZLED: SPIKE LEE'S BLACKFACE MOVIE
Before moving on to how Let’s Make a Deal figures in all this, let’s segue to Spike Lee’s controversial movie, Bamboozled, released in the year 2000. The film is a rebuke of black actors and filmmakers, who have allowed themselves to perpetuate negative black stereotypes in today’s entertainment media.
The film includes a painful montage comprised of discriminatory and demeaning images, especially blackface, from cartoons, movies and TV shows, which routinely normalized and reinforced racial prejudice for decades of American history. Lee was trying to say that any black entertainer who allows himself to play those roles in the 21st century has been “bamboozled” into believing he’s doing some kind of good, whether it’s to become rich and successful ("for the good of the community") or to increase the black presence in contemporary media.
When I watched the film, I was reminded that Sidney Poitier defined the entire arc of his brilliant acting and directorial career when he refused to take on any stereotypical roles. “I will not play that,” he said. And he kept his word.
Spike Lee was asking other African Americans to do the same. Unfortunately, Bamboozled was largely misunderstood. It suffers, in part, from its use of the very imagery it seeks to condemn. As is often the case with satire, a lot of folks didn't get the point. Which is too bad. As the following trailer shows, the film offers plenty to think about and deserves to be screened again.
LET’S MAKE A DEAL
Because TiVo kept recording after I watched this morning’s news on CBS, I happened to catch a little of the popular daytime game show when I reached for the remote to turn off the TV. The little I saw proved enlightening and uplifting.
Wayne Brady offered one of his usual deals to a breathless African American woman in a white dress. Before getting started, he politely asked her name and occupation.
“I’m a Life Coach,” she said.
Pointing out that people usually see a Life Coach to resolve a problem, Brady asked what kind of blanket advice she could share with the show's viewers if they had a problem in their lives. Don't get into details or specifics, he said. Just give us a broad idea of your best advice.
“Self-reflection,” the contestant said. When the same things keep happening over and over in a vicious cycle, people eventually realize they have a problem. The best way to stop the cycle is to look inside yourself. Only then can you identify the causes and take appropriate steps to keep bad things from repeating themselves.
Because I had to leave for an appointment, I couldn't wait around to see if this Life Coach contestant won the shiny red car that was in her deal today. But what she said about self-reflection was the light-bulb moment I needed to hear.
Blackface is a problem that keeps happening over and over in a vicious cycle. It’s always shocking. Always painful. Denial does not work. Accusations do not work. Double standards do not work. Getting into Instagram shouting matches will not work. And ignorance is no defense.
Every day people die because blackface has contributed to the dehumanization of African Americans. If you are ignorant, become aware. Learn the definition of racism. Understand its relationship to power. Look inside. Be honest with yourself about what you find there.
If we really want a better America, why don't we all follow the wise advice offered by that Life Coach on Wayne Brady's TV show? It's time to get rid of blackface. Let's make a deal to do just that.
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