Nick Cannon (Mariah Carey’s husband) has enraged the Internet by posting images/videos of himself in “whiteface.” Many whites are venting their frustration with the perceived hypocrisy over the incident involving Dancing with the Stars dancer Julianne Hough, who received backlash when she dressed in blackface for Halloween 2013, while imitating the character “Crazy Eyes” from the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black.
I won’t get into the debate of the hypocrisy. Or whether whiteface is as offensive as blackface.(It’s likely not, as blackface has a history of racial degradation and dehumanization behind it that whiteface never had).
Nevertheless, there is something about this debate that bothers me.
Whether it’s willful ignorance or plain naivety, some people who defend blackface (and whiteface, too) seem all too obsessed with saying there’s nothing wrong with painting one’s face black or white, if you’re imitating a character, who happens to be that race.
I have a problem with this. What point am I making? There’s more.
White people, more than any other race, are obsessed with painting their skin black, under the guise of dressing as their favorite character/personality who happens to be black. Hence, Julianne Hough had to paint her face black to “truly” portray Crazy Eyes.
Why is it that when black people dress up as Spiderman, Superman, Elvis Presley, etc,they do not paint their skin white? Yet, when whites dress up as Michael Jackson, Crazy Eyes, they paint their skin black?
Could it be that black people, growing up in white dominated society, under the influence of a white-centric media, have learned to “normalize” white features/white skin? Blacks do not treat white skin as a “costume” in the same way whites treat black skin.That is to say, blacks do no see white skin as strange, alien, different, abnormal, and therefore do not have the desire to touch it, or white people’s hair, etc. Many blacks have had the experience of dealing with whites who touch their hair randomly. In my father’s case, a white man rubbed his skin (checking to see if the black will rub off?) under the pretense of asking for a light.
This behavior of treating “black skin color” as part of a costume–something that can be rubbed off/rubbed on–is troubling for its real life implications. Black people live in a society where they are the “other.” White people just cannot accept black skin as normal the way they accept their white skin. The inability to separate skin color from TV characters and the treatment of black skin as a costume piece (blackface) is a sign of the subconscious unease many whites have with black skin/ the racial other.
It bothers me when people say they have no problem painting their skin black (rarely ever white) to imitate their favorite character. It bothers me because my skin is not a costume piece. It’s not painted on. It also (shockingly) do not determine my character, personality trait, style or behavior. Each time I see white people in blackface, I am reminded of my “otherness”–that society does not see me as normal. It reminds me of Minstrel shows,too.