Anyone on social media has probably already come across the shitstorm of white people dressing in blackface/brownface costumes. The recent events have included dancer and actress Julianne Hough‘s Orange is the New Black costume, the 21-year-old Australian woman’s “African”-themed birthday party, the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman costumers, Italian fashion designer Allesandro Dell’Acqua‘s “Disco Africa” themed Halloween party and the San Diego high school football coaches who wore blackface for their Cool Runnings Halloween costumes.
When we look at these photographs, we see ignorance, insensitivity, prejudice, and disrespect, but often we do not examine how these ritualistic masquerades are part of a production of and investment in pleasure and community at the expense of people of color. The main reason why they continue is that their is an enjoyment and communal, identity-structuring power, albeit sickening, in doing so. It is no coincidence that often these blackface costumes are done during times of celebration and joy, like Halloween, birthday parties, and Christmas, as in the tradition of Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands. As holiday season comes, we see the greater occurrences of these costumes. Egbert Alejandro Martina wrote a post, “The Delicious Pleasures of Racism” about the sadistic kind of pleasure white Netherlands enjoy from dressing up as Zwarte Piet:
“People take pleasure in dressing up, and acting, as Zwarte Piet. As such, pleasure plays an important role in
the psychological investment that gives Zwarte Piet its cultural currency. Moreover, one of the main arguments used in defence of Zwarte Piet is that Sinterklaas is a “fun” and joyous occasion for children and by getting rid of the figure we are denying children a source of pleasure…George Lipsitz argues that racism doesn’t manifest itself “exclusively through hostility and exclusion.” Pleasure, joy and triumphant emotions, as well as hate and hostility, drive the processes of societal racism. “Personal feelings of antipathy and prejudice are not,” as Steve Martinot contends, “the core of racism; they arise in defense of an identity and a sociality of dominance.” Moreover, a sociality of violence or power is not, as Tim Cresswell states, “simply about control and regulation through denial, but about the production of pleasure itself,” which allows people to accept violence as sociality.”
Her explanation is similar to explanation of white Americans attachment to minstrelsy and blackface in the 19th century; they gave white Americans a chance to dress up like the other, embody the other (obviously in a racist, grotesque manner), and thus gave them a sense of freedom. It is a fantasy of the racial other and their, as Eric Lott wrote, “special, excessive enjoyment,” a result of a suppression of their own desires. And blackface is not only visual, but a performance as well. For example, Miley Cyrus and other white female performers who use black female sexuality as a kind of blackface mask that is a revelation of their fascination with the black other — blackness as a representation of a kind of excessiveness of pleasure against what is perceived as an emptiness of whiteness.
The excuse is always that it is good ol’ innocent fun, but they never stop to question who it is fun for and who it violates. They do not see, intentionally or not, the violence of the masquerade. It may not be the threat of physical violence (read Christopher Shinn’s description of the ritualized masquerade of the KKK), but it is a ritualized psychosocial violence. The root of the word violence is not only physical injury, but also dishonoring of others and that is what these costumes do to people of color. Just look at the disrespect of a murdered young man from the people who wear Trayvon Martin costumes. It is similar to a a bad rape joke; it represents and reopens the traumatic wound for survivors of the violence. It is like a horror movie that is forced in your face over and over again while everyone else is partying around you.
By the way, Shantrelle P. Lewis (Shantology) is currently creating a documentary on Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in the Netherlands. The film and those who are against the practice has come under attack from some of the Dutch who support it, but she is still continuing, and needs more funds to go back to the Netherlands to finish shooting. Here is the facebook page and the website’s donation page.