Blackface: The New "It" Bag

Curator's Note

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? 

Comments

Susanne Hamscha's picture

Excellent analysis, Kim. I

Excellent analysis, Kim. I especially find the link between blackface and consumerism, and its implication that ethnicity can be purchased, put on, and then disposed of very troublesome. Thanks for bringing that to our awareness. To reconfigure ethnicity as a commodity not only veils systematic structural discrimination but also reaffirms whiteness as the unmarked, privileged category which is able to appropriate the Other at will—a liberty that those who are marked as “Other” do not have.

As you rightly point out, the problem with certainly well-intended ads (like the UNICEF and "I am African" pieces you included in your post) is that they foreground color, thus making blackness an artificial common denominator, if you will, that obscures the vast differences between black peoples in and outside Africa. But what worries me even more are blackface practices in the modeling industry and its implication that blackness is a new fashion trend. Not only does that trivialize complex racial histories, but it is also a form of appropriation that robs the Other of agency and of its right to existence, in fact. If white people are the better, more beautiful black people, then how can the Other still positively negotiate its identity? How and where can the Other find a space to exist without being yet again reduced to its color? 

As you can see, I don’t really have an answer to your question — the more often I watch your clip and read your post, the more questions, rather than answers, pop up in my head.

 

Ethan Caldwell's picture

Blackface as a reinvestment in whiteness

 

This is a well thought analysis, Kim.  I would like to focus on a temporal component associated with blackface as a reinvestment in the privileges of whiteness.  A white male or female can choose to embody a particular black aesthetic, one that can be donned temporarily like a mask, which can be used to achieve specific ends (aiming towards consumerism, as mentioned).  Afterwards, the mask can come off and the individual does not have to experience the marginalization that others, whose mask is naturally affixed, endure on a daily basis.  While the blackfaced figure can choose to don and benefit from this aesthetic, their counterparts who possess it naturally cannot.  A black person cannot change their appearance, nor can they make the similar claims of privilege based on visual or cultural markers.  While many may strive to appropriate aspects of the dominant culture, such as through hair straightening or skin lightening, they will always be seen as the Other, as part of a marginalized group.  This further reinforces a privilege of whiteness - one that allows individuals from the dominant group to temporarily appropriate aspects of the Other’s visual or cultural aesthetic that they themselves cannot embody without being criticized or demoralized. 

 

While I do not have a specific answer to your question, further questions come to mind that relate to it.  What happens when portrayals of the Other are done by the Other themselves?  How is the hierarchy, and even whiteness complicated when blackface is reappropriated by the Other?  Would we also consider this a reinvestment in whiteness, or perhaps a reinvestment in the privileges certain groups hold over other marginalized groups?  Like Susanne, more questions come to mind than answers.

 

 

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