When I was 8 years old, I dressed up as Senator Ted Kennedy for Halloween. I remember strongly arguing for this costume. I don’t know why my parents let me do this, but it was the Reagan era and people were desperate. My parents got me a little blue suit, wrote ted kennedy on a faux briefcase, grayed out my hair, and off I went.
Later that evening, neighborhood kids—including some of my “friends”—jumped me and stole my candy. Then they ate it in front of me at school the next day. I get it now. Those who would defend the liberal social safety net must be prepared for pushback from non-empathetic forces who view all tax as theft. My assailants simply did not understand the difference between a progressive levy on marginal income versus outright piracy. As my father would say years later when I reminded him of my childhood, which he largely drank through, “Ted Kennedy lost two brothers in the struggle for justice. You lost some candy.”
Anyway, the point is, even though my parents let me walk out of the house surely knowing that I was about to get my ass kicked, they did not lighten my face to make a stupid costume work. Because that would have been wrong. And unnecessary. And offensive. If you are Black like me, you should never feel so excluded from the cultural discussion that you feel the need to lighten your beautiful complexion just to fit in. And if you are white, and you want to make your own stupid costume work, well, just don’t wear blackface. It’s never okay. There’s never an appropriate day for it. Put the shoe polish down.
There is scholarship available for people who really don’t understand why blackface is offensive. The practice comes from shows designed to dehumanize people with dark skin. The truth is out there for the Megyn Kellys of the world, and people who refuse to learn the history of this offensive practice deserve no sympathy for their willful ignorance. Blackface is racist by definition: There is no exception for white people who claim they don’t mean it that way. There is no dispensation for white people who claim to do it as an “homage” to some character or celebrity. The color of a person’s skin is never their most essential or defining feature. People who wear blackface are self-identifying as prejudiced, no matter how racist-bone-free they claim to be.
Yet, every year, there are people who darken their skin in the name of a costume. It’s racist. It’s degrading. It’s hateful. Still, if I’m honest, what really offends me about people who wear blackface for a costume party is their shocking lack of creativity. Our universal ancestors did not draw on caves so that their future progeny could dye themselves for lack of a more evolved sense of artistry.
It is not hard to dress up as something without changing your skin color. I could dress up as a MAGA thug without changing my skin color. All I need is one of their stupid hats, a water gun poking out of my fly, and an American Flag shirt appropriately stained with barbeque sauce. No face painting required. I could go as a QAnon quack: I’d need a Starfleet uniform and would have to fashion a tinfoil headpiece in the shape of a Klan hood. It would take people a second, but they’d get the costume.
My costumes would work without face shenanigans, because I’m making fun of political movements. I’m not making fun of somebody’s race or culture. I’m not making fun of “the white race,” so I don’t need my face to be white in order to stick the landing.
Unfortunately, there are still too many people who don’t understand the difference between dressing up as a concept and caricaturing a culture. Even beyond the clearly wrong instances of blackface, there are people who walk out of the house bedecked in all manner of bigoted artifacts to make a costume “work.” This country’s sombrero industry stays in business because of Halloween. I have no idea why they even make bone-through-nose clip-ons other than to invite white people to be racist. Right now, there is probably some white lady telling her boyfriend that she can totally wrap a towel around his head to look like a turban. White people treat Halloween like they’re in a version of The Purge—a movie about one night a year when it’s OK to kill people—but where free rein is given to racism.
Treating other people’s cultures as a costume is the entire problem. It’s a problem if you are making fun of that culture; it’s a problem if you think you are lauding that culture. There’s no “good” way to dress up as “Polynesian,” even if your kid loves Moana. Instead, there are good ways to dress up as Moana, and none of those ways requires face paint. (Hint: You need an oar.)
Two years ago, I ended up in a long offline conversation with a white parent. Their white kid wanted to dress up as Black Panther, and the parent was convinced that this was the one time it was acceptable to wear blackface. I pointed out that Black Panther wears a mask, but the parent argued that this actually helped their point, that the kid should be able to wear blackface under the mask so it wouldn’t be offensive to anyone, but the kid would feel more like Black Panther daubed in the blackface that only he knew about.
After, you know, choking back the urge to throw the parent off a waterfall, I inquired whether the kid would be drinking vibranium tea and running down criminals during Halloween. No, of course not, the parent said; Black Panther is make-believe, after all. Well, I asked, “How the fuck do you get that the ‘Panther’ part is make believe but think the ‘Black’ part is something your kid can really be?”
All uses of blackface, all of them, come from a deeply biased place where other people’s races and cultures can be used as a prop in some white fantasy narrative. That’s why it’s always wrong.
The parent shut up, or I walked away—I forget which happened first. But I was later informed that the parent did not end up slathering their kid in shoe polish under his mask. Which made me feel good. Having had the snot beaten out of me one Halloween, I’m always happy to save other kids from that fate.