Why Blackface Is Making a Return in Popular Culture

Halloween revelers, politicians and entertainers have been wearing the makeup

Think blackface is a relic from the past? Think again. Blackface has returned. The growing list of those wearing the controversial look include celebrities, models and Halloween revelers.

Although examples of blackface can be found in fashion spreads, costume parties and TV shows, African Americans and others still find it offensive. That’s because historically white performers—the most famous of which is Al Jolson—wore blackface during minstrel shows. This theatrical form of entertainment that became popular in the 1830s hardly portrayed African Americans in the best light. As author and cultural critic Mel Watkins explained to PBS:

“It presented the black character as being stupid, as being comical, as being basically a frivolous character. Now, how that impacted upon society itself was that they embraced it. They loved it. This was what people had thought about blacks all along.”

Academics say the stereotypes minstrel shows spread about blacks still exist today. What’s not so clear is whether the individuals who wear blackface now intend to spread racial stereotypes. The answer to that question largely depends on the example of blackface in question. Does a white model who wears blackface during a photo shoot because she’s been directed to by a magazine’s editorial department intend to disparage African Americans? Probably not.

The same can’t be said for a college student who dons blackface to a ghetto-themed party in which blacks are painted as ignorant and uncouth. No matter the motive, it’s important to remember that because of blackface’s history, many regard it as offensive as the N-word. Thus anyone who desires to practice racial sensitivity should refuse to wear blackface and discourage others from wearing it also.

Beyonce in Milan
Beyonce performs in Milan. BeelOver9481/Flickr.com

R&B star Beyonce Knowles is beloved to millions. When the light-skinned African-American songstress appeared in a French magazine spread in blackface along with war paint on her cheekbones and African-inspired attire, she sparked controversy and fierce criticism. L’Officiel magazine’s editorial staff said that they put the star in blackface to pay tribute to her African roots and to spotlight Africa’s influence in fashion.

Critics argued however that Knowles’ fashion spread amounted to a careless and offensive appropriation of African cultures. The magazine staff cited no particular African nation as an influence for the spread, leading others to suggest that the photo shoot simply rehashed existing stereotypes about “tribal” Africa.

Moreover, critics took aim with the decision to darken Knowles’ skin not only because of blackface’s ugly past but also because African people come in all skin tones. In other words, Knowles’ could have very well honored her African roots sans the chocolate face paint.

Because Knowles is of African descent, her decision to wear black face raised questions about whether it’s less offensive for a black person to wear blackface than it is for a white person to wear it? Like the debate surrounding the N-word, there’s no consensus on the issue, but the backlash Knowles received for the L’Officiel spread will likely discourage other entertainers—black or white—from appearing in blackface. More »

Constance Jablonski
Top Model Constance Jablonski has been criticized for wearing blackface. Fervent Adepte de la Mode

Beyonce Knowles is far from the only person to don blackface during a photo shoot. Several high fashion models, including Lara Stone and Sasha Pivovarova, have appeared with darkened faces in magazine spreads.

Other models such as Constance Jablonski and Crystal Renn were accused of caricaturizing people of color after appearing in spreads posing in an Afro wig with a black baby and taped eyes in an Asian edition of Vogue, respectively.

Moreover Tyra Banks’ hit television show “America’s Next Top Model” came under fire when models were made up to look African, Asian and so on. Although the faces of these models weren’t darkened to perpetuate longtime stereotypes of blacks, Claire Sulmers of The Fashion Bomb Daily website says that the loud public outcry that blackface fashion spreads have generated make it clear “that painting a white model black was just…not okay. Even if it was simply an artistic expression, it poured salt on open wounds rooted in slavery.” More »

Harry Connick Jr.
Harry Connick Jr. has spoken out against blackface. AngryJulieMonday/Flickr.com

When New Orleans jazz musician Harry Connick Jr. appeared as a judge on Australian television show “Hey Hey It’s Saturday,” he was stunned when a group called the Jackson Jive (a twist on the legendary R&B group the Jackson Five) appeared in blackface and Afro wigs during their performance.

He lambasted the group’s decision to darken their faces, remarking, “I just want to say, on behalf of my country, I know it was done humorously, but we’ve spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart.”

Connick’s criticism spurred debate about how blackface is viewed around the world. Australians defended the Jackson Jive’s decision to perform with darkened faces, arguing that blackface does not have the same stigma that it does in the United States. More »