September 19, 2019 | 49° F

SHAH: Using racial identity as costume is dehumanizing

Opinions Column: Wait, Was that Racist?


Whenever Halloween comes around, I have an incredibly distinctive fear that I will see someone complete their elaborate "Orange is the New Black" costume with blackface, like Julianne Hough did in 2013, or a costume idea unintentionally hinting at blackface, like Lili Reinhart’s recent tweet about dressing as a demon painted in black. Of course, there are people who deliberately use blackface to enforce a racial stereotype in an incredibly insensitive manner, but the truth is that most of the celebrities we attack on Twitter or our own peers that we see at parties are never truly seeking to be offensive. They are not specifically using blackface to mimic the blackface that was offensively used in early Europe minstrel shows to act out “stereotypically crude, black behavior.” They are not explicitly racist.

They end up doing it out of pure, blissful ignorance. I wince at all of the negative backlash Reinhart is getting all over Twitter simply because it’s pretty obvious she did not mean anything by it. I’m sure the people that are slamming her know that too, deep down. But racial insensitivity is a personal matter, and the common miscommunication between humans, known as intention versus impact, comes into play. I’m not aiming to defend those who use blackface at all because of their “good intentions.” I’m trying to highlight that there are far too many people still blissfully ignorant to the derogatory, offensive nature of costumes involving blackface in 2017, the age of the social justice warrior. Ignorance is never an excuse, especially in an age where we are constantly inundated with information from every media outlet on the planet.

Ignorance is privilege.

And the truth is … everyone knows blackface is wrong. Every year, celebrities who do it go viral, the internet explodes, and at the end of the day, the celebrity apologizes — and then ta-da! A teachable moment is born somewhere in between! He or she will do better next time! America is fixed! Racism is over!

And yet, somehow, every year, there is always someone new doing it. No matter how many teachable moments go viral, no matter how many people get enraged, there is a certain privilege that permits people to put on blackface and embrace a race for one single night — a race that has a particular history of being outwardly and structurally oppressed.

At the end of the night, they go right back to being white, facing none of the discrimination that many people of color do on a daily basis, none of the implicit bias that comes along with skin color — because to them, it’s a costume. And yet, people wake up in their skin color every single day and unfortunately do not get to shed it when it’s convenient.

When I was a kid, I forced myself to look for brown-specific costumes because I felt like I couldn’t step outside the realm of my skin color. This basically meant me dressing up as Jasmine or an “Indian princess” for many of my early years. I have learned since then that I can be whatever I want to be because skin color is only one singular facet in a costume, and a negligent one at that. I have never once considered painting my face white to dress as Cinderella, and whiteface does not even share the convoluted and disturbing past of blackface. 

So why does it logically make sense for Julianne Hough to douse her face in bronzer to somehow emulate Uzo Aduba’s character on the show? Is Crazy Eyes known simply for her race? Is race the only character trait that anyone cares about when they see Aduba’s brilliant portrayal of an emotionally off-kilter, lovable inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary? If so, that brings to light an incredibly disappointing, different problem altogether.

Because when Hough dresses as Crazy Eyes but also feels the need to blacken her skin in order to do so, it insinuates that race somehow is an incredibly relevant characteristic to portray, which in turn only emphasizes racial differences, leading to the disharmony between people of different colors. It adds race as one of or the most important defining characteristic of a person, even a character like Crazy Eyes, who has so much depth that is completely unrelated to her race. By using racial identity as a costume, we simply dehumanize and minimize an entire race. Blackface is about having the power and superiority to simply borrow a race for the night and return it in the morning because you don’t want it anymore.

Blackface is only the extremely explicit culmination of a variety of microaggressions that occur within contemporary America which highlight the use of race or culture as a prop when it is really an identity. There are ghetto parties, which “celebrate” Black culture with chains and afros, and Latino parties in which partygoers dress up as pregnant teens or maids. But there also instances deemed more innocent, such as the use of bindis as concert-going accessories (like in Selena Gomez’s "Come and Get It" music video.) Some people think getting dreads is a fashion statement. Others adorn Aztec patterns on literally every accessory. At the end of the day, all of these different moments, as minute as they may seem, contribute to a culture where race and culture are continually donned as costumes rather than all-encompassing identities.

There is nothing political about this: it is simply about respect of tradition and culture. Blackface and cultural appropriation is never okay, even if it’s just purely for a fun, innocent Halloween costume, even if you weren’t being intentionally racist. This Halloween, get informed.

Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School first-year, double majoring in finance and political science. Her column, “Wait, Was that Racist?”, runs on alternate Fridays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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Anjali Shah

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