Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Can Black Face Come Back And Not Be Racist?

Some things are so awesome they should make a comeback-like the TV show American Gladiators-why and how hasn't that had a reboot in this reality TV and fitness crazed society?
But then I feel there are things that should probably never happen again. Some because they are stupid-like the Rachel haircut, wall mounted mechanical singing fish, overalls. And some because they are offensive-like sporting black face make up in a racist way.
Black face theatrical make up was an important performance tradition in 19th century American theatre minstrel shows and Vaudeville. But its use to create caricatures of black people that perpetuated stereotypes played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. And since the Civil Rights Movement, the use of black face has been the cause of controversy and is generally seen as quite racist.

This week black face make up has been seen twice as making a bizarre cultural comeback among a politician and in high fashion.

First, we have prominent State Assemblyman Dov Hikind from Brooklyn who hosted a massive Purim party at his home featuring fourteen hours of food and drink and, as is customary on the Jewish holiday, elaborate costumes. Mr. Hikind said a professional makeup artist came to his home to transform him into a “basketball player” with a costume that consisted of an afro wig, sunglasses, an orange jersey and brown face paint. And obviously the picture was found on facebook. But he claims respect is the name of the game explaining, “Purim, you know, everything goes and it’s all done with respect. No one is laughing, no one is mocking. No one walked in today and said, ‘Oh my God.’ … It’s all just in good fun with respect always, whatever anyone does it’s done with tremendous amounts of respect and with dignity, of course.”
I really just don't know what this guy was thinking or how he can possibly feel this costume does not come across as racist. Really the wig would have probably been enough to get the point of his costume across. Hikind also admitted to The New York Times that for next year's costume he was thinking of being an Indian, but after all the backlash over this year's look from clergymen, elected officials, and the Anti-Defamation League, he says that might not be a great idea. You think, dude?

And meanwhile, in the trend setting fashion world we have a 16 year old white model posed as an "African Queen" in an editorial for 'Numero' magazine.
Yikes. I'm not sure how this was decided upon, but it is odd. First comes the question of why couldn't they have just used a black model? What defeating message does this send to young black women? (Incidentally, I read that 82.7% of the models at NYC Fashion Week were white this year.) Not to mention that it also seems to be setting a scary beyond "Snookie' or 'tanning mom' standard for white women. Is this fashion spread trying to suggest to women that they should tan and use bronzer and make up to the point of nearly black face? But I suppose, it could be argued that many black women have for years been attempting to fit the standard of white beauty through products, and especially with hair styling, so why shouldn't white women also want to strive to look black? Maybe this isn't offensive at all. I don't know.
Remember Robert Downey, Jr. in the film "Tropic Thunder?" I think after the shock wore off we decided that was ok. He was even nominated for an Academy Award for his brilliantly hilarious performance as the pitiful, over the top actor.

I guess the bottom line is that racism exists and is something we should be sensitive to. And it is worth keeping tabs on how black face re-enters the cultural mainstream. So when a politician dresses up as a caricature of a stereotyped basketball player, I question his judgement and his thickness at not seeing why it's potentially offensive. And when a fashion magazine turns a beautiful white girl into a beautiful black girl, I think it's bizarre but consider the source-this is also an industry that has tried to make us want to be many non-human colors.

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