Blackface: The New "It" Bag
by Kimberly Alecia Singletary — Northwestern University
October 25, 2009 – 11:56
Globalization has been useful for knowledge circulation and opening borders to once-foreign cultures. The perplexing international popularity of blackface, however, is globalization’s aftertaste.
Blackface is an American invention but other countries with histories of colonialism and/or exploitative racist cultural practices have found contemporary purchase with blackface, despite voiced discomfort from resident black and non-black populations. Blackface obscures the importance of individual differences in each black person’s ethnic, religious and cultural history, making the color more important than the person. In “I Am African” ads, a continent is meant to stand in for 47 countries, various ethnic and religious groups, and 922 million people, not all of whom are black.At left, blackface is meant for loftier ends – charity and fashion – but in tying blackface to modes of consumerism, blackface becomes just another “It” bag in global public culture, making visible the racial imperative inherent in designations of those who can be “in.” The “It” bag reinforces social, economic and, class structures, labeling its owner an investor. The investor’s choices inspire similar iterations within the mass public, perpetuating a system that designates worth based on possessions. Attaching blackface to a consumerist ideal decentralizes blackness making it available for global purchase without concern of messy culturally specific social and political issues; blackface can be adapted and discarded at will, making by default those with blackness equally disposable. Blackface also is a reinvestment in whiteness – a problem particularly acute in the modeling industry – stressing that the most beautiful, skilled black person is actually a white person in brown makeup. Left, American photographer Steven Klein used white Dutch model Lara Stone for French Vogue’s November issue and designer Carlos Diez debuted blackface in a September show in Madrid. Blackface negates black beauty making it impossible for those whose blackness isn’t artificial to “become” beautiful; whiteness is required in order for the appropriation of blackface to work. UNICEF Germany (2007) and “I am African” (2006) follow the same formula. In a world where borders seem to be dissolving and cultural practices melding, how might contemporary blackface practices create hierarchical means of evaluation, erasing an Other’s identity as we reestablish our own?