I've only ever been on the receiving end of overt racism a few times in my whole life. Let me tell you the strangest incident: in 1999, fourteen and black, I walked into a Tim Hortons and passed an older white woman in the entranceway.
Suddenly, she stopped right in front of me, sneered, and hissed "Little black waif." In an instant, her husband, who seemed as surprised as I was, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into the parking lot.
It didn't offend me, really; more than anything, I was just amazed that somebody would be so overwhelmed with hatred that they'd lose it in the middle of a Tim Hortons, especially since the coffee there is so weak. How many cups do you have to have to go full-blown racist?
Suffice it to say, racism of that sort is fairly rare, but I get the sense that it's still what people think about when they hear words like "racism" being bandied about. It's understandable, then, that people would balk at any insinuation that Raffi Torres is or was that kind of racist when he dressed up like Jay-Z, black face and all, for a Halloween party Sunday night.
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I'm confident that Torres had no racial slight in mind when his wife and he came as Beyonce and boo, respectively. When asked by partygoers what they were, they probably didn't say, "Two racists."
I will gladly defend Torres as a non-racist, and not because he's a Mexican represented by a black agent (although that's a pretty good indication his opinions on ethnicity are a little more nuanced than some have suggested); rather, I'll back him up because wearing blackface simply does not make you a racist.
Still, I'm going to espouse an unpopular opinion — while Torres may not be a racist, he was sporting a racially insensitive costume. Blackface is thoughtless.
Blackface is the issue here. In response to the flood of lazy straw man arguments at which I've been sighing all damn day: no, it isn't offensive to dress as a woman; it isn't offensive when Dwyane Wade goes as Justin Timberlake; it's not offensive to the N'aavi to dye your skin blue; it's not offensive to toy soldiers to dye it green; and this isn't a double standard -- blackface is a special case.
Someone has probably told you by now that blackface has a long, storied and shameful tradition in American culture, that it comes out of a history of mocking African-Americans for having dark skin, of portraying them as caricatures and clowns, of playing the non-white as comedic.
There's a reason blackface was fully wiped from American televisions in 1981. It's backwards, and it's offensive.
It remains offensive because of what it used to be. Nowadays, blackface offends for the same reason that it offended many when Prince Harry chose to dress as a Nazi for a Halloween party a few years back: while he wasn't espousing Nazism any more than Raffi Torres was espousing a return to minstrelsy and the Jim Crow laws, both were belittling a very sensitive national history, intentionally or not.
The problem is that blackface is so loaded now, you can't possibly go out in it without making a racial statement, without calling up the shame and mockery that African-Americans sought to overcome by taking blackface and the idea of blacks as second class citizens out of popular culture.
Like the N-word, using it doesn't make you a racist, but smart people know that it's an obscenely loaded concept. You're best to avoid it unless you're fully cognizant of what you're doing or you're making a larger statement (such as Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, whose character donned blackface out of a heightened sense of self-importance).
I took an American Lit class some years ago in which we studied the classic Flannery O'Connor short story, The Artificial N-----. In it, a man and his grandson go to Atlanta, where they have a falling out, get separated, and then reunite under a caricatured statue of a black boy eating a piece of watermelon.
I was paired for discussion with a girl that didn't quite get the symbolism. She claimed that there were no racial implications whatsoever, that "Watermelon is just a fruit." I remember being shocked that she missed the most unambiguous symbolism in the history of Flannery O'Connor.
I proceeded to explain to her that the statue was a depiction of a black stereotype, but because the grandfather and his grandson weren't black , they were able to have a laugh over it and make up, rather than have it haunt and mock them, as it did the people in the ghetto in which it stood. For the grandfather and grandson, it was merely humorous and harmless, because they didn't have to worry about its larger meaning.
Not unlike the people that go out on Halloween in blackface.
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