That the joke is actively harmful to black people or other people of color doesn’t register with the person in blackface—even when being directly confronted about it—because their feelings were in the background or in the periphery, if they were considered at all. You’re just supposed to assume that the blackface wearers are good. That their intentions are well-placed. That they aren’t those white people.


“We’ve always been seen as the invisible in a way,” says Fitzgerald, who is black. “[White people] can be provocative, you can be a fool, and know that whatever repercussions may be small.”

“Ironic” performances of racism, ironic blackface, is exactly like the blackface that mocks people of color in that it’s a joke white people are performing for themselves. Of course, ironic blackface doesn’t exist, because there is not a single white person who is far enough away from racism and its trappings to be able to don it as a costume.


“It’s Kind of a Fun Idea”

We can’t talk about blackface, on Halloween or on any other day of the year, without considering its place on a continuum of racist performances. Without considering how this sort of role-play has always helped white people, particularly white men, bond with one another. Without considering what that means in a time when neo-Nazis and white nationalists are marching on the streets to protect their monuments and symbols.


As Feagin and Picca’s work shows, white people—mostly young white men, but not always—take pleasure in these jokes and know that they are offensive. Anti-black racism is a way for them to pass the time, to connect, to feel a cheap sense of rebellion even though there is nothing inherently rebellious about American racism—it has always been the status quo.

“It’s kind of a white male bonding ritual,” Feagin observes.

In 2017, this kind of humor and this kind of bonding also serve as an entry point to more dangerous behavior.


Online trolling is another sort of anonymous performance; racist memes, another, modern iteration of racist jokes, that carry well past the “backstage” of a bedroom or parlor. As noted in a Vox article from January, both have been instrumental in radicalizing white people.

In each of these instances, the joke functions as a way to acclimate: to play the part of a racist before becoming one.


I keep thinking about the pathetic, young white man in Charlottesville, Va., who, separated from the Nazis he was marching with, was about to get his ass handed to him by counterprotesters. When he was confronted with immediate and painful consequences, video footage shows the man quickly stripping down and begging the crowd to let him go.

“I’m sorry!” he shouts, pleading with the crowd that he just “came to watch.”

“You can’t just take your costume off,” someone says off-camera.

C.J. Hunt, a field producer who shot the video, wrote about the incident for GQ . In a conversation with Hunt later, the young man said he participated in the march because it was “kind of a fun idea.”


“Just being able to say ‘white power,’ you know?” he told Hunt, who is a person of color.

It’s not blackface, but it’s drawn from the same place. Blackface is about role-play, performance and the white imagination. But at its white heart, blackface—as with this young man’s Nazi “costume”—is ultimately about power.


Taking Off the Mask

“It’s easy for [white people] to look at like, a Richard Spencer, and say, ‘He is not me; he does not represent me or my thoughts,’” Professor Fitzgerald says.


And yet plenty of nonblack people still engage in racist performances, like blackface or telling racist jokes, or subscribe to faulty racial beliefs—like the false notion that white people are being “attacked” in the country.

What’s worse is that these particular people have a hard time confronting their racist behavior, not because they’re concerned about its effect on people of color, but because being labeled a “racist” means they’re bad people. Which, in their hearts, they know that they are not.


This is made clear in the frequently self-pitying and over-explanatory apologies that people who have done blackface offer.


In this way, the continued practice of blackface or brownface doesn’t just strip people of color of their image; it effectively robs them of their voice when what they think, feel and say about these costumes doesn’t matter.

As Feagin tells me, “This is more than about prejudice or about stereotypes.” He continues: “We whites are raised in a worldview, what I call the ‘white racial frame,’ from cradle to grave.”


Within that white racial frame are the images of the black pimp, the black “welfare queen,” the Latinx gang member or lazy, undocumented immigrant—the racist images that manifest themselves as costumes year after year.

But most important to the white racial frame is that it centers whiteness as a default. That it portrays whiteness as inherently virtuous.


“It’s a pro-white subframe,” Feagin explains.

And it’s often the hardest one for white people to dismantle.

“In it, we whites are trained into seeing ourselves as virtuous. We have the most virtuous history. We have the most advanced civilization,” Feagin adds. “We speak the best-quality English. We have the best beauty images, especially for women. All of those things ... civilization, history, values, religion, virtues, work ethic.”


The inability to see the ways in which American society has actively and historically been pro-white is part of a “white arrogance,” he says—the same arrogance that inhibits whites and nonblack people from seeing the harm of blackface.

When white people are called out for racist behavior, they don’t hear that they’ve hurt a person of color. What they hear is that they’re not virtuous, Feagin says.


Both Feagin and Fitzgerald agree: Though everyone in America consumes the white racial frame, dismantling it is white people’s business.

Unfortunately, if more and more white people buy into the notion that they’re being attacked and discriminated against, the will to look at behaviors that are, as Feagin says, “wrong, but not wrong enough” will likely go out the window.


Blackface in 2017 isn’t all that removed from the minstrel tradition from which it draws. It’s still performance. It’s still drawn from a white imagination; it’s still a projection conjured for a white audience. It’s still protected and insulated by white ignorance and white good intent—which is to say, the assumption of white virtue, of white goodness.

Everyone knows my character and knows my heart.

Which is why blackface isn’t going anywhere.