Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Blackface: A Halloween tragedy in three actions


HALLOWEEN, ECONOMISTS tell us, has become another more or less official American holiday. Not a federally recognized holiday, mind you, but an observance with a proven history of burnishing the country’s fiscal bottom line. According to the Halloween Spending and Intentions report, conducted every year for the National Retail Federation, Halloween spending has increased from about $3.3 billion in 2005, to $8 billion last year. This year’s loot is expected to be about $1 billion less, but that’s already being blamed on the real-life ghosts and goblins of the shutdown on Capitol Hill.

But even with the growing big-money participation of adults, there’s a reason why Halloween should be left to children, who haven’t learned how to pollute their fantasies with their fears.

This Halloween season, there’s actually three reasons. At least.

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On Friday, actress Julianne Hough, apparently channeling her inner TV fangirl into a vaguely adulatory Halloween getup, appeared at a Los Angeles Halloween party promoting Casamigos Tequila, wearing a costume she no doubt thought was right on point with its implied reference to a popular TV show. Hough showed up in blackface with her blond locks knotted up and wearing a prison-orange jumpsuit, just like Crazy Eyes, her favorite character from the hit Netflix television series “Orange Is the New Black.” She also darkened her hair and eyebrows to better fit the, uh, role.

Instagram and social media took care of the rest. A photo of Hough, and other shots of some of her girl friends (who played other members in the cast sans blackface) hit the Internet, and that was that.

Hough knew pretty much immediately that she’d stepped in it, big time. On Saturday morning, as photos circulated around the world, Hough tweeted all apologies: “I am a huge fan of the show Orange is the New Black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created,” she tweeted. “It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.”

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LET THE BLOWBACK begin. Since Saturday, Hough’s Twitter page has been alive with reactions, pro and con.

Amanda Kendl: “You shouldn’t have to apologize! Halloween is to pretend to be someone you’re not. I don’t get what’s so offensive. Loved it!”

Only4RM: “You must be quite sheltered not to have anticipated offense ... But KUDOS for an apology w/o using the word ‘if.’

NotSo Silent Majority: “Too bad you’re not a bigger fan of history. As an artist, you should have known better. Shame on you.”

JIA: “Really don’t even understand why you’d think that’d be cool or overlooked. Since when was Black face cool?”

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Or check out the story at Global Grind. Offensiveness had a field day elsewhere in America this weekend.

The Global Grind piece shows what looks like a scene at another Halloween party somewhere in America: a photo of a white guy in blackface wearing a hoodie spattered with fake blood ... to his left, a friend wearing a NEIGHBORHOO WATCH T-shirt, pointing a finger gun at the hoodie guy’s head — all of it a deeply insensitive take on the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

The picture of William Filene and Greg Cimeno was posted to Caitlin Cimeno’s Instagram account, and from there to Facebook and from there to every social-media platform and news Web site in the country — a kind of corrosive posterity. A sadly reflective corrosive posterity.

And racial insensitivity in disguise isn’t a water’s edge experience. The same weekend in Milan, Italian fashion heavyweights threw a posh, Halloween-themed “Disco Africa” party, complete with — you know where we’re going — slaves in shackles, women in banana skirts, partygoers as safari animals, and various people adorned in blackface.

The designer Allesandro Dell’Acqua did the full idiot monty in a blackface-and-formal wear costume that was straight 19th-century minstrel show. The photograph by Russian photographer Zhanna Romashka tells the story of an event that perpetuated a long fashion-industry history of objectifying people of color in rqually demeaning ways.

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EXPLORING THE psychology of disguise, Bruce Poulsen, Ph.D., of the University of Utah School of Medicine and Department of Educational Psychology, observed this in an October 2012 piece in Psychology Today.

“Shakespeare anticipated some of what Freud would fully develop: We are divided, contradictory creatures with an uncanny capacity, not only to disguise ourselves from other people, but to masquerade our own wishes and desires from ourselves. ...

“Besides the obvious pleasures associated with Halloween, our donning of disguises may be a way of enjoying the possibility of being someone that we didn’t know we were or could be.”

The scholar Izalina Tavares is less automatically charitable when race enters the picture. In a thoroughly brilliant essay at the Humanity in Action Web site, she flips the script on the minimizers of the impact of blackface.

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In her piece, from 2004, Tavares writes about the persistence of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), a racialized Christmas tradition in the outwardly progressive nation of the Netherlands, a practice still deeply cemented in Dutch culture and identity.

She may as well have been writing about what an actress did at a party in L.A. last weekend, what a grosso buffo fashion designer did at another party in Milan on the same weekend ... and what, guaranteed, any number of people will do between now and next weekend with no understanding of — or total indifference to — what such actions say about us, our sense of empathy, and how far we’ve really come down the road to something like social justice.

“For some people, ‘racism’ means explicit, intentional, and out-loud hatred or dislike of a group of people. Those who have a deeper understanding, however, know that "racism" represents a state of mind that supports or creates means of causing harm to one or more specific racial groups. ...

“What happens when one is so concerned with not being something that the people refuse to look at themselves critically in fear of finding what they don’t like, and in many cases greatly oppose? What we get is denial of the experience of the peoples we are trying to avoid being prejudiced against, which gives birth to a new form of prejudice of its own. The protection of our own egos and comfort, at the expense of the dismissal of an oppressed people’s reality, becomes a judgment of their condition that is completely out of context.

“This brings further harm to marginalized people. We create a new form of racism as we tell ourselves that their oppression is not as bad as they say. They attribute their condition to something within them as opposed to coming from without. Those who pride themselves on being so free from prejudice often suffer the most from it.”

Also published at Medium.com. Hough: via TheWrap. Martin-Zimmerman parody photo: Cimeno Instagram account (since taken private). Dell'Acqua and friends: © 2013 Zhanna Romashka. Tweets by their creators. 

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