Why White People Love Blackface, Explained

Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)
Explain Like I’m a Racist 5-Year-OldLike the popular subreddit “Explain Like I’m 5," which simplifies complex issues into easily understandable, digestible bites, “Explain Like I’m a Racist 5-Year-Old” breaks down complicated subjects on the intersection of race, economics and politics, making them so simple, even a bigoted toddler could understand them.

Hey Racist Baby! Why do you look so concerned?

Hello again! I came to ask if you can put in a good word for my dad before he goes to jail.

Jail? What has your dad done now, Racist Baby?

Absolutely nothing! He just told me that the PC Police are going to arrest all the white people. I didn’t even know that people of color had their own police force.

No, Racist Baby. The “PC” is an abbreviation of “political correctness.” It’s a term white people use when they don’t want to be condemned for doing something that offends people.

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What exactly did your dad do?

Well, he was talking about everyone being upset at some guy named Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo for Black History Month. I think he’s going to be kicked out of his office for doing the moonwalk when he was in college.

No, my little kindergarten Klansman. Daddy Racist is talking about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. It was recently discovered that he wore blackface after someone found a photograph on Northam’s medical school yearbook page of one man wearing blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform. Northam said that he wasn’t in the photo but admitted that he has worn blackface to dress up like Michael Jackson. He even offered to prove it by moonwalking until his wife stepped in.

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I saw that photo. I didn’t think there was anything was wrong with it. My dad has one of those ghost costumes. I’m pretty sure he’s in a club with people who dress up like Casper and roast marshmallows because every time he wears it, he comes home smelling like burned wood.

There was a black guy smiling in the photo, so how is it racist?

No, Racist Baby, that wasn’t a black guy. That was someone wearing blackface.

What’s blackface?

Blackface is a method of artificially coloring one’s skin to look like a black person. It began in the 1830s when white people painted their skin with burned cork to perform minstrel shows that mocked slaves. One of the most popular performers who wore blackface was a man named Thomas D. Rice, who performed as the character Jim Crow.

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Wait. I think I’ve heard of Jim Crow. My dad always talks about missing him and wishing he would come back.

I bet he does. Up until the early 1900s, entertainers would sing and dance under the mask of blackface and perform acts that perpetuated racist stereotypes.

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But my father told me that black people wore blackface, too. How is it racist if black people did it?

Black people did it for two reasons. One of the biggest reasons black entertainers wore blackface is because, very often, they couldn’t work in front of white audiences without it. During those times, white audiences didn’t want to see black performers as human beings, so the only way black artists could even think about making money was by playing a cartoonish, minstrel version of black people. Many entertainers still think that’s a great way to entertain people, but we’ll talk about Tyler Perry’s career another time.

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So what is the other reason black people wore blackface?

The University of South Florida’s “History of Minstrelsy” says, “Blackface allowed actors and artists to hide behind a caricature while protesting and mocking the powerful without fear of retaliation. Minstrel performers could safely question authority while claiming to be acting out authentic African American expressions.”

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But if everyone did it back then, is it fair to call them racist now?

Let’s be clear: Blackface was always demeaning and reductive. Even the people who did it in the 1830s knew it. Shirley Temple knew it when she did it. Judy Garland knew it when she did it. Mickey Rooney knew it when he did it. They just didn’t care how their actions affected or portrayed black people. They literally considered black people as second-class citizens.

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But you bring up a great question about a called subject called “presentism.”

Oooh, I like presents! Are you going to buy me a Hitler doll?

Not quite, you neophyte Nazi. Presentism is the practice of interpreting or judging historical actions using modern-day attitudes. That’s the argument people use to explain why they don’t consider Confederates to be white supremacists—because slavery was normalized in the South.

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For instance, if you look at many of the same movies that feature blackface, men would often slap their wives and girlfriends as a means of “discipline.” No one thinks this is OK now (except maybe Chris Brown) but this was the prevailing attitude of the day.

So is it fair to call those men “women abusers”?

Of course it is. They actually abused women.

Exactly. That’s why it’s disingenuous to say, “That’s just how it was back then.” There were women fighting for equal rights back then. There were abolitionists fighting against slavery since the founding of this country. Even when slavery was legal, there were people who thought it was criminal. The same is true with Jim Crow, segregation, and even blackface.

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It’s not that people on the wrong side of history didn’t know—it’s that they are endowed with the all-American privilege of white supremacy, so they didn’t care because they didn’t have to care.

Is that how it was way back in the 1980s when Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo was taken?

Not quite. By 1984, everyone considered blackface a racist trope. In 1981, Ben Vereen was ridiculed by people, both black and white, for wearing blackface during a tribute to vaudeville performer Bert Williams at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural gala. In 1982, the Baltimore Police Department banned one of its police officers from performing in blackface.

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Ralph Northam knew it was racist in the 1980s. Even the white people who claim they don’t know it’s racist when they get caught understand the racist implications of blackface. Have you ever noticed that white people never pose in blackface with actual black people?

Well, we’re not allowed to have pictures of black people in my house. But every year people are caught wearing blackface. If everyone knows it’s wrong, then why do people still do it so often?

Well, Racist Baby, some white people think it’s funny.

America is and has always been 3.8 million square feet of Caucasian safe space. Many white people are habitual line-steppers, and when they hear that something is off limits, they feel an innate urge to do it.

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It’s exciting. It gets white people going.

White frat boys wear blackface for the same reason Alabama sorority girls yell the n-word on Instagram. They know the history and the meaning but they want to yell it anyway. So they do it in the comfort of their own surroundings. Plus, it’s hard for them to understand how wearing blackface can be taboo in a country that lets them pump bullets into black faces without penalty.

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So Ralph Northam is racist?

Ralph Northam did a racist thing. He might not have done it because he hates black people. He might not have even thought about it. It doesn’t matter what’s in his heart. It’s his actions that matter.

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Additional pictures have even surfaced from the same yearbook with more blackface photos. Apparently, blackface was a thing at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Maybe Northam was simply a white man doing what white men do. You have to remember—this happened in Virginia, which is basically Mississippi with a better PR team.

So, are the PC police taking him to jail?

I hope not, Racist Baby...

I really wanted to see him moonwalk.

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.