Ok, fair warning: even though I’ve railed against this sort of thing before, the stance I’m going to take in this article is going to sound a lot like a reverse-racism complaint. Understand that it’s not. Or don’t, I honestly don’t give a fuck. But know that the point I’m trying to make is not about reverse-racism, but rather about how amazingly skewed our perceptions have gotten in this country.
[/pathetic attempt at pre-justification]
So here’s what’s got my dander up: earlier this week, an eight-year-old kid in Colorado dressed up as Martin Luther King, Jr. for a school project. Not so shocking, right? Weeeeeeeell, he also…how shall I put this…the boy was white and he got some makeup involved.
Yup, the kid went in MLK blackface. Complete with hilarious fake mustache. You uh…you should probably just watch the video for yourself:
Here’s the thing: if you watch the video, this kid is so fucking sincere in his desire to pay tribute to King that it’s impossible to even imagine that his desire to don blackface makeup came from anything other than honest admiration. But of course, a white person in black makeup is the kind of socially unacceptable snafu that gets one ostracized from polite, socially-conscious company or, in this case, sent home from school.
Hey, look, I understand why people have a knee-jerk reaction to blackface. As recently as my own parents’ early years it was perfectly acceptable and even lauded for white people to put shoe polish on their faces, affect horrifically stereotypical and offensive accents and mock black people. My mother has charming stories of my own grandfather participating in minstrel shows through the 1950s and the early 60s, so I get that it’s still a bit of a raw wound. But this kid with his little suit and adorable speech impediment was not trying to denigrate blacks, he was trying to pay homage to a great black leader. It was, functionally speaking, the precise opposite of a minstrel show, and I for one commend his sense of theatricality. Should his parents have maybe had a quick discussion with him about why people might flip out over this before they sent him off to school that fateful morning? Yeah, probably. But should they have stopped him from a sort of touching and absurdly cute tribute to an American hero? No, I don’t think so.
I’m not standing up for blackface as a concept, and certainly not an entertainment choice, I am saying that people are so fucking geared up to get upset about everything in this country that innocent, sincere things like this get immediately polarized and turned into enormous social issues, which they are not. And for the sake of argument, let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. Minstrel shows have been roundly rejected by Americans because they allowed the (admittedly in power) whites to play obscenely exaggerated and racist portrayals of (admittedly oppressed) blacks. So tell me this: why is this…
…such a travesty, but this…
…is hilarious good times? Is it the quality of makeup? Is there a Wayans-to-not-being-racist ratio that I am unaware of? No, it’s because it’s ok to make fun of white people, and the rules do not apply equally across race lines.
Do I fully understand the reasons behind this? Sure do. Am I calling for black performers to stop dressing up as white people and adopting embarrassing Valley accents? Not at all. What I’m asking is for people to take a moment to think about why they have the immediate, visceral reaction to a white kid in blackface that they do, and maybe examine the idea that intention makes all the difference in the world. No Wayans brother, no Eddie Murphy, no Martin Lawrence has ever put on whiteface to pay tribute to JFK or John Brown. They put on whiteface to make fun of white stereotypes. Which is exactly like a minstrel show. And we as Americans are perfectly fine with it. Hell, I fucking loved Coming to America. But isn’t it, then, the height of hypocrisy for people to get upset about a genuine attempt by an eight-year-old to do his very best at a school project and pay homage to one of the greatest leaders America produced in the 20th century?
You’re goddamned right it is. Settle down, America.