In 2015 a white Alabama schoolteacher was forced to write a public apology after pictures of him dressed up in blackface for Halloween went viral.
The teacher, Heath Morrow, was dressed up as Kanye West; his wife as Kim Kardashian West. Morrow donned a blazer, a backward baseball hat and shutter shades—the sort of look West hadn’t worn since 2008.
Morrow also wore blackface across his entire face and neck, all the way down to his hands.
The backlash was predictable, as was the subsequent apology Morrow wrote:
I would like to first apologize for my error in judgment. My intentions were not malicious or directed toward any certain group of people. I would also like to say that everyone who knows my character and knows my heart knows that I have never seen color in my life. I wasn’t raised or taught that way and do not raise my children that way. I see people for who they are, and my wife and I go out of our way to help anyone we can in my profession as an educator. When deciding to dress up for a Halloween party, my wife and I made a decision based on celebrities and the political climate today. I do not want this to reflect on my school or school system based on my poor decision that I made. Again, I apologize, and this will not happen again.
As with most apologies, the person in blackface was less concerned about how his or her actions were actively harmful to black people than the fact that his or her reputation was now sullied. Morrow was concerned that he and his wife would no longer be seen as good people.
He was ultimately not punished by his school.
Morrow’s costume was by no means exceptional. Go to any predominantly white college town on Halloween and you’ll see any number of offensive and racist costumes. And, as the media faithfully reports each year, there’s always some asshole in blackface.
A mentor of mine once told me that people, generally, are very good about doing things that feel good to them. It sounds simple—one of those “no shit” lessons—but it’s actually really clarifying when you encounter people on their worst behavior. That terrible deed they did? It felt good.
Nonblack people keep doing blackface because they find it enjoyable. But what makes this sort of performance so compelling for them? Why do they insist on doing it even as the consequences for that kind of behavior—suspensions from school, online harassment or permanent expulsions from student organizations—become increasingly clear and well publicized?
Why can’t white people stop performing blackface?
Frequently, when white people are caught doing blackface now, they claim ignorance—they weren’t aware that it was wrong, or they were unaware that it would cause offense.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that this just isn’t true.
Joe Feagin, a sociologist at Texas A&M who is among the first academics to develop the idea of systemic racism, and his research partner, Leslie Picca, documented this phenomena in their book, Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Front Stage.
The pair asked approximately 625 white college students from two dozen campuses across the country to keep a diary of racial events they witnessed or participated in. After a period of six to 12 weeks, those students came back with more than 9,000 entries.
Most of the entries were centered on humor: racist jokes or performing blackface or racial stereotypes for laughs—a dynamic that’s consistent with Feagin’s upbringing in the Jim Crow South.
“It’s clear that these 21st-century college students still do a lot of the racist joking and performances that my generation did back in the ’50s and ’60s,” Feagin, who is white, says. The difference is that they are more aware that it’s wrong.
In many of those diary entries, when white people are shooting the shit by telling one another racist jokes or performing some variation of blackface, someone in the room will call out the behavior, saying, “That’s wrong” or “That’s terrible,” Feagin tells me.
But the jokes don’t stop. In part it’s because the offensive quality of the jokes is the point, and in part because the room generally thinks the jokes are not that bad.
“It’s like picking your nose,” Feagin tells me. “People know that they shouldn’t do it in public, but they do it anyway. Because it’s not wrong enough.”
It was a bit rattling to hear blackface or “nigger jokes” being likened to something as innocent as picking one’s nose, but that’s the point: All too often, white people’s shame isn’t in performing blackface; it’s in getting caught doing it by an audience that isn’t as receptive as their all-white “backstage” audience.
Social media has pulled the curtain back on “backstage” racism to some degree. Most of us would never know about white girls wearing charcoal masks at a sleepover and dropping racial epithets were it not for Snapchat or Instagram. But Donald Trump’s presidency has also emboldened some white people to take that backstage behavior to the front. And humor is key for many nonblack people—especially those who consider themselves to be good people—to excuse blackface.
Racism as Costume
Blackface, traditionally, is about donning blackness as a costume. Specifically, it’s about blackness as white people understand it.
I went to college in the South during the era of Chappelle’s Show, Lil Jon and Flavor of Love. There was a certain kind of white person—the dude bro—who particularly loved referencing these characters and figures.
During Halloween I’d see them, on occasion donning blackface, though not always, shouting “OK!” with a “pimp cup” in their hand, shaking a dreadlocked wig (so what if it was a generic “Bob Marley” wig?), relishing the stereotype they got to play.
Wearing black stereotypes as a costume is “nothing but a continuation of defining a people as less than,” says Terrence Fitzgerald, a professor at the University of Southern California who focuses on race and oppression within education, “as this deviant group, sexualized group. Ignorant. Dumb. Depraved. All of those sorts of adjectives. It’s just a way to keep that alive.”
But there is another brand of racist performance of which blackface is sometimes a part, which is supposed to be ironic: one where the costume or performance is so over-the-top, so exaggerated, that the audience is supposed to assume it’s a joke; that the person donning the costume or telling the joke is actually the opposite of what he’s performing.
In one example of this, comedian Hari Kondabolu and his brother, former Das Racist hype man Ashok, talk about a show in Rome where a white guy showed up in complete “head to toe” blackface, complete with a Flavor Flav-style giant clock. When confronted about his costume and told to wash it off, the white guy refused, countering with, “It’s a joke! It’s ironic!”
That the joke is actively harmful to black people or other people of color doesn’t register with the person in blackface—even when being directly confronted about it—because their feelings were in the background or in the periphery, if they were considered at all. You’re just supposed to assume that the blackface wearers are good. That their intentions are well-placed. That they aren’t those white people.
“We’ve always been seen as the invisible in a way,” says Fitzgerald, who is black. “[White people] can be provocative, you can be a fool, and know that whatever repercussions may be small.”
“Ironic” performances of racism, ironic blackface, is exactly like the blackface that mocks people of color in that it’s a joke white people are performing for themselves. Of course, ironic blackface doesn’t exist, because there is not a single white person who is far enough away from racism and its trappings to be able to don it as a costume.
“It’s Kind of a Fun Idea”
We can’t talk about blackface, on Halloween or on any other day of the year, without considering its place on a continuum of racist performances. Without considering how this sort of role-play has always helped white people, particularly white men, bond with one another. Without considering what that means in a time when neo-Nazis and white nationalists are marching on the streets to protect their monuments and symbols.
As Feagin and Picca’s work shows, white people—mostly young white men, but not always—take pleasure in these jokes and know that they are offensive. Anti-black racism is a way for them to pass the time, to connect, to feel a cheap sense of rebellion even though there is nothing inherently rebellious about American racism—it has always been the status quo.
“It’s kind of a white male bonding ritual,” Feagin observes.
In 2017, this kind of humor and this kind of bonding also serve as an entry point to more dangerous behavior.
Online trolling is another sort of anonymous performance; racist memes, another, modern iteration of racist jokes, that carry well past the “backstage” of a bedroom or parlor. As noted in a Vox article from January, both have been instrumental in radicalizing white people.
In each of these instances, the joke functions as a way to acclimate: to play the part of a racist before becoming one.
I keep thinking about the pathetic, young white man in Charlottesville, Va., who, separated from the Nazis he was marching with, was about to get his ass handed to him by counterprotesters. When he was confronted with immediate and painful consequences, video footage shows the man quickly stripping down and begging the crowd to let him go.
“I’m sorry!” he shouts, pleading with the crowd that he just “came to watch.”
“You can’t just take your costume off,” someone says off-camera.