When is a costume racist?
By Jeffery Gladstone, Contributor
2020 has been a year of reflection. Specifically, reflections on what we consider acceptable and offensive in society. Earlier this year, there was a reckoning in the television world for episodes of people portraying blackface. With the entertainment world having such a vitriolic reaction to their previous portrayals of blackface it poses a question: is all representation of blackface inappropriate or is there wiggle room?
Why is blackface wrong, but whiteface, like the Wayans Brothers’ movie White Chicks or Dave Chappelle on The Chappelle Show isn’t? Some will argue that whiteface is fine because it’s satire. However, I don’t believe this argument is on equal ground because I don’t think a white person dressing in blackface today for satirical reasons could do it without controversy; in fact, this is exactly why the aforementioned reckoning took place. I think when it comes to racial issues like this, we shouldn’t have rules where one thing is acceptable for a specific group of people and unacceptable for another. Either it should be acceptable for everyone or unacceptable for everyone. If we say that it is fine for everyone to dress as someone from another race but just not include the addition of colouring one’s skin, then that is something I can understand. Leaving it in the grey where it’s only okay for some people will just lead to confusion and more incidences of mistakes and anger.
Some might make the argument that we look at blackface too critically compared to other costumes someone might wear. For example, let’s say at a party a white man is getting criticized for dressing in blackface and a person walks by dressed as a white character, like a Viking. In searching whether dressing as a Viking was okay, many sites said it was fine, despite the fact that the most well-known moniker of Vikings was that they “raped and pillaged” communities and were bloodthirsty warriors. Even if they didn’t really do that, this is a big part of their legacy and image. Rape is still a serious problem in the world yet this costume gets a pass, but dressing as a black celebrity or character is somehow worse—even if done respectfully and with positive intentions (e.g., admiration for the person). I think most people can’t even imagine how Vikings could have roamed in our society since they lived so long ago, but blackface is still considered a very recent trauma in the last hundred years, so it needs to be cut on all levels.
I will fully admit that my opinion on this may not be informed since I am a white person commenting on this, and I admit that my stance is controversial because pretty much every article I found not only said it was wrong, but chastised anyone who dared to have an opinion otherwise. But I just cannot understand why anybody of any race would ever be offended by someone dressed as a character from another ethnic group as long as they do so respectfully. If it is someone dressed as a slave, or dressed as a minstrel show character, I can understand why that offends since that is specifically using a character or a moment in time that brought great pain to black people. But if someone is dressing up as a fictional character, or a real-life person, and it’s done out of appreciation and respect for that person/character, why is that considered offensive? There is an debate to be had about cultural appropriation, but that topic is far too detailed to cover in this argument.
Blackface gets a lot of hate, but I believe that if it is someone acting as a specific character (as long as that character itself wasn’t specifically designed to offend), or someone consents to someone else dressing as them, why should that be considered offensive or given the label of “racist” blackface? I know the world still has many areas of injustice but saying that dressing as a character or figure is offensive regardless of intent is not going to solve this problem. We need to stop hyper fixating on such issues and focus on fixing the true problems of inequality; maybe in the future, we will look at dressing in blackface the same way we look at dressing as a Viking—just a costume with no intent to offend.