I grit my teeth as I sit down to write—yet again!—on the question of blackface. Gucci kicked off Black History Month with the debut of an $890 black balaclava with big, red, knitted lips surrounding the mouth opening. This seemed exceptionally provocative given that Dolce & Gabbana is still apologizing for last year’s “slave sandals,” and the luxury-coat manufacturer Moncler is still making nice after mass-producing a line of clothing emblazoned with loud images of black-faced “golliwogs.” Meanwhile, there’s the viral photo taken at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky showing a crowd of students, some in full black body paint, taunting an African-American basketball player from a visiting team. “School spirit” is how some people described the scene of howling, scowling boys, but to me, they looked nothing less than feral. And let’s not forget that every public figure in the state of Virginia seems to have once played dress-up in blackface, memorialized by the yearbooks of decades past.
As Washington Post critic Robin Givhan has noted, none of these acts were performed by “elementary schoolchildren with a tenuous grasp on American history”—or European colonial history, for that matter. Rather, the perpetrators—teenagers, adults, and full-scale multinational conglomerates—should all have known better. “Whether some sleek photograph in a fashion magazine or a grainy one in an Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, it’s all the same,” Givhan writes. “Blackface gets to the discomforting core of how black people are seen by the broader culture and how some white people see themselves.”
Indeed: What is it that these blackface-donning white people see in themselves? Blackface is widely dismissed by those who perform it as a “joke.” But if it’s humor, it is surely a most aggressive form thereof; there’s also a strong undercurrent of defiance, an anger whose subtext is “Piss off—just try and make me stop.”
It reminds me of a Confederate flag I saw and wrote about some time ago, waving from the back of a jacked-up monster truck. There was an image of a large black assault weapon printed across the flag, and under that the words “Come and get me.” There is a threatening undertone to the gleeful taunting, and in the persistent, insistent claim that blackface is “unintentional” racism.
“For some people,” continues Givhan, “the idea of dressing up in blackface is just another form of drag.” While drag can sometimes be subversive, ironic, liberating, and gender-bending, blackface is more often like a dare, or the defiant smirk of someone who bears you no good will.
As such, blackface operates as a policing of social boundaries. A bit like Halloween or Mardi Gras, it is a form of play that inverts the self, marks the upside down, and points to whatever one is not. Moreover, it resembles certain anthropological or quasi-religious rituals that “call out” or cast curses on the objects of contempt. In other words, blackface gestures at a phenotype that may be mocked; it makes amusing theater of black defilement while passing as “jocular,” white, and mostly male bonding.
Blackface is part of an armamentarium of cultural habits that diminish black bodies as hyperbolically magical, all while signaling that they are dirty, dangerous, and untouchable. My father, who grew up under Jim Crow, used to describe white people rubbing his head for good luck. When I was 3, I remember an elderly white woman giving me a penny because giving one to a “colored child” was like throwing it in a wishing well. To be so relentlessly projected upon is a central feature of existing as a racialized entity.
For generations, soap companies have played on the riff of whether race can be washed off or is a permanent curse; whether it is safe to touch a black person without “the stain” being contagious. The game of blackface, then, seems to operate very similarly to the way that the bestowing of “cooties” works among children: as a cautionary negative, a stigmatizing witch’s wand of potentially pulverizing intensity. Look out, we are warned, for what happens to you when you make contact with that “Negro touch”…
And cooties, like boot polish, are powerful forms of sorcery. As child psychologist Lawrence Hirschfeld has written, they have no particular form or consistent definition, yet they cast spells. They are literal curses, simple but terrifically powerful assignments of social contamination.
Blackface is one of the many ways such social borders are signaled. The magical touch of the untouchable marks insiders from outsiders in political as well as personal ways, giving rise to something like what the philosopher Étienne Balibar calls an “interior border.” Unfortunately, hexing in the name of difference has become a ceaseless feature of our political life: Calling CNN or ABC “enemies of the people,” for example, makes them antagonists within. Equating asylum seekers with murderers, rapists, and drug mules is a way of rendering them contemptible. Even wearing a MAGA cap has become not merely a badge of tribal allegiance but an emblem of proud hostility toward designated “others.”
President Trump has declared his intention to institute a national state of emergency in order to implement the gated world he envisions for our future. But even before we get around to steel walls, this aggressive racial pantomiming and walling-off of worlds has terrible and irrational consequences for us all.
It lends conceptual authority to forms of segregation ranging from redlining to mass incarceration. The casting of curses settles into the bones, a coiled power ready to strike when suddenly unsettled, no longer a joke, no longer a spot of bad judgment, no longer laughable at all.