Why Skin Color is a Bad Party Costume
And so it happened: a friend of mine posted a picture of herself in blackface at a Halloween party. “Oh, what are you tripping about? It was just for fun!” Well, maybe to you, but in the aftermath of the Bazart / Bazalt discussion and in anticipation of Black Pete, it’s time to say why not everyone is getting the joke.
Text by Hendrik Wittock
What is Blackface?
Historically speaking blackface denotes the practice of casting a white person to play the part of a black person in theatre. The actor would be painted black with thick red lips and would have stereotypical character traits and speak in a creole like fashion. Kind of like, if a Belgian would dress up as a Hollander, wearing something orange, sporting slick gelled up hair and speaking with exaggerated pronunciation… only Dutch people aren’t slaves.
A Skin Color is not a Party Accessory
Simply put: a skin color is not a party accessory. A skin color is something you are born with that has its effect on your daily life. It is a part of a (perceived) identity that comes with a lot of bagage. Your party outfit doesn’t. After the party, when you’re smashed and have smeared your blackface all over someone else’s face, you can simply take back your white privilege with something as simple as a washcloth.
Many Shades of Blackface
If you, like my friend, would dress up as Crazy Eyes from Orange Is The New Black, that would be completely different wouldn’t it? Well, yes, but that doesn’t make it harmless. Crazy Eyes is a beautifully nuanced character. In a predominantly white, ableist, heteronormative and patriarchal society, Crazy Eyes is in a particularly disadvantaged position as a black homosexual woman with mental illness. All of these identity markers, not in the least her blackness, have contributed to who she is. You cannot simply paint that on - or wash it off.
Identity is not a Costume
Our identity is the sum of many parts. Personally I am white, ginger, 1/2 of twins, twenty-something… and gay. When straight men dress up like ‘Voil Jeanet’ at Aalst Carnaval, they are making a caricature of a certain gay identity. Even though historically speaking ‘Voil Jeanetten’ are just men dressed up in their wives’ clothes because they couldn’t afford a costume, the modern practice has changed. And although I don’t mind straight men exploring their feminine side, they can go on unchanged after three days of binge drinking, while I try not to cross my legs too elegantly at a job interview.
Where do you draw the line?
In the case of Bazart / Bazalt’s Halloween party, there was clearly a difference between Blackface Kanye and the caricature of a Chinese man. The former might be considered as a tribute, the latter was clearly not. If one day you feel like dressing up as Freddy Mercury, be my guest. As a gay icon, he cleared the stage for today’s overtly queer artists. Putting on an old dress and acting camp is a different thing. If you do feel like dressing up like a Jeanet, why not Janet ‘Nipplegate’ Jackson? But skip painting your face. The bottom line is: although everyone can wear a bodysuit and flash a boob wearing nipple covers, not all of us can casually change the color of their skin.
Note: my friend took down the picture that inspired this piece after a mutual (black) friend told her she didn't like it. Her feelings were acknowledged and respected and just like that we can all continue to educate others and ourselves and hopefully make everyone feel good in their skin.