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The digital & the everyday: why does blackface refuse to go away?

Leyla Reynolds

Last week I opened up my Facebook and was met with an unpleasant sight. An old school ‘friend’ – label now under contention – had dressed up as Kanye West, complete with shoe polished skin and uploaded it to Facebook for a bevy of unsuspecting former classmates to see. She’d swathed her straight blonde hair in a bandana and atop that perched a backwards baseball cap. There was the presence of sunglasses worn indoors (albeit not shutter shades, her stereotyping did not stretch to such nuance), her legs were spread wide and her twisted hands attempted some approximation of the “gun fingers” favoured by many rappers, but not particularly attributable to Mr West.

Flabbergasted by this flagrant blackface in the year I had thought to be 2017, I commented without hesitation how just not okay I considered the image to be. My response was unsurprisingly met with deft silence. Blackface often seems like the interminable infection. This crude attempt at cultural impersonation reminded me of how regularly it is met with backlash and how virus-like, time and time again, it rears its unapologetic unpleasant head no matter the antidote flung at it.

Just a few days ago, comedian Chris Lilley of “Summer Heights High” and

“Jonah from Tonga” fame, was slammed for a video wherein he posed as a black rapper whilst singing a song called ‘Squashed Nigga’.

The tweet was made days after the end of a court case focusing on an indigenous Australian boy who was run over and killed. His response to the outcry on Twitter following his tweet was to apologise for ‘any hurt caused by the misinterpretation’ of his video, but not for the cultural posturing, the darkened face nor for the use of the N-word. Last year a Hungarian journalist was criticized for donning darkening make-up and transposing her face on to those of several African women in order to celebrate “stunning tribal beauties on the brink of extinction” yet literally erasing individuals in the process.

Another instance of blackface hit the headlines last month when Los Angeles based Instagram make-up artist Paintdatface posted a ‘transformation’ of a white woman as a woman of colour and a cultural costume, complete with head wrap. Quite apart from the extreme level of disconnect required to consider either of these needed acts to put out in to the world, both of these individuals seemed blissfully unaware of the hurtful and demeaning history behind their seemingly harmless actions.

Film still from the movie 'Silver Streak' starring Gene Wilder in blackface ©John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images/Autograph Media

But what’s the problem with blackface? It’s repeated usage in entertainment and media, even extending to impersonation and exaggeration of black culture in reaction gifs, would suggest widespread societal acceptability. Award winning British American comedian Tracey Ullman who was recently commissioned for a new series with the BBC has a long history of impersonating black and brown people in a mocking way which plays on their race as the butt of the joke, and yet continues to lead a successful career both in the UK and across the pond. However, despite society’s continued ambivalence to this dehumanizing hobby, there exists a wealth of history which makes the often seemingly innocuous trend, offensive.

Blackface is the use of “Make-up used by a non-black performer playing a black role.” The practice which gained popularity in the 19th Century is part of a long tradition of cultural mimicry, which in the 1800s took the form of the blackface minstrel show. Early white performers would use burnt cork, grease paint and later shoe polish to temporarily darken their skin tone. Throughout the 1870s through to the 1940s “Darky” iconography would frequently adorn the covers of sheet music. Brands such as the French Banania continue to use such iconography, their packaging featuring a young black boy with bright red lips reminiscent of the widely condemned British Golliwog.

Kanye West in those glasses

But over the course of the last two centuries Blackface has mutated. It is no longer just the practise of darkening one’s own face to widespread hilarity, it instead has extended to the digital sphere and the practise of using stereotypes of ‘ghetto’ black people to express our inner most, emotional and passionate responses on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In 1999 Adam Clayton Powell III coined the term “high-tech blackface” to refer to stereotypical portrayals of black characters in video games, with David Leonard writing that such adoptions betray a ‘desire to be black’ through the “stereotypical visions of strength athleticism, power and sexual potency within the virtual reality of sports games.”

In recent years we’ve also seen that same ‘desire to be black’ in the widespread adoption of a perceived ‘black’ cultural aesthetic on white bodies, particularly as part of the Instagram ‘baddie’ culture, with numerous white celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Kylie Jenner lauded by young audiences for their aspirational features and bold fashion choices where black celebrities continue to be derided; their braided hair or plump lips hailed as novel or new.

Where minstrel shows once demonstrated how the temporary nature of blackness intrigues, modern day celebrity continues to prove that blackness is desirable only when it exists under specific conditions and in certain hands. endpoint

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