It’s not yet Halloween, and Julianne Hough is already apologizing for her decision to don blackface at Mike Meldman’s annual party. She attended the festivities with a group of friends who dressed up as the cast of Orange Is the New Black—with Hough as the character known as Crazy Eyes. Unfortunately, Hough wasn’t the only adult who made the choice to wear blackface this year.
I was disappointed, though not too surprised, when I saw that Hough wore blackface. Racist costumes are a sad staple of each year’s Halloween. I also wasn’t too surprised that someone reappropriated a character of color from Orange Is the New Black this Halloween. Although some have argued that the show provides its audience with a humanizing view of prison life and reveals the horrors of the prison industrial complex, many of us have also argued otherwise. The characters are often written as caricatures rather than anything else—and are easily digested as such. A Netflix series that leans on racist tropes becomes a problematic inspiration for someone who seems unable to heed numerous advisories against blackface. Let the nightmare begin.
In her apology, Hough tweeted that she is “a huge fan of the show Orange Is the New black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she created.” While Hough was collapsing a drama-comedy series, an acclaimed actor and a problematic character all into one, it apparently never crossed Hough’s mind that wearing blackface doesn’t honor anything except a long history of racism. If it did cross the mind of any of the friends she attended the party with as members of the cast, they likely stayed silent, and played along. This silence is crucial, for it becomes the tacit vehicle through which racism is accepted. Meldman’s annual parties are well attended, yet it’s unclear if anyone in attendance uttered a word in protest. It wasn’t until photos of the scene emerged that Hough issued an apology.
Halloween has long been a holiday on which it’s acceptable for people to flex racist imagery a little more than usual. Some kinds of racism are always accepted a little more than others, of course. Just a few years ago, John Legend and Christine Teigen dressed up as Cowboy and Indian, although their offensive idea never gained negative national attention. Playing Indian continues this year, with Tonto costumes to match the Lone Ranger fantasy—but, as Adrienne Keene has pointed out, Tonto only scratches the surface.
But perhaps most disturbing this year is the fact that so many people have decided to dress up as Trayvon Martin (sometimes with, and sometimes without a friend dressed as George Zimmerman). Although one photo has garnered the most attention, several people thought it would be a good idea to spin the killing of an unarmed black teenager into some kind of joke. Black death has become so trivial that, for some, it’s now a costume to wear, complete with blackface.
Silence is a form of endorsement—and in these cases, that means quiet approval of costumes that celebrate racism and death. Yet social media are not allowing these incidents to go unnoticed, with users making it clear that blackface, in any version, is unacceptable.
While we celebrate that small triumph, let’s not forget that one month from today, most people will be celebrating Thanksgiving, while silently endorsing the death of Natives who made it possible.
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