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When I was a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, you could call someone a “retard” and no one would bat an eye. In fact, there were a whole slew of other awful behaviors that our now more enlightened and tolerant society would find to be horrible, offensive and objectionable.
Don’t get me wrong: I, like most kids, knew it was mean to say those things at the time but didn’t care because it wasn’t affecting me personally. Unfortunately, real empathy is something that is sorely lacking in American culture, so one of the few ways to initiate any change in kids — or adults, or society as a whole — is to actually explain why something is offensive to begin with.
Now that social media has brought us an almost-annual phenomenon of mostly white American teens and young adults putting on blackface for Halloween, it’s a good time to explain exactly why this is a problem. These events can be a teaching moment for children and anybody who realizes that having a good time is not synonymous with being offensive.
Historically, blackface goes back to the 19th century in the United States. Middle-class, culturally-bohemian whites in the North paid big sums of money to see other whites dress up as blacks and sing songs and “act black.” When blacks engaged in the same cultural behaviors, whites deemed them as “savage and inferior,” but when white men performed those same acts, they were lauded with praise and called brilliant.
This is what many historians and social scientists call cultural appropriation, whereby a dominant population oppresses and shames a minority culture but “appropriates” the “best parts” for their own use and consumption. In other words, being black was cool as long as white people were doing it, but when black people did it, it was a problem.
What made this so offensive at the time was the fact that these men were seldom playing individual black characters. The idea was that by simply putting some burnt cork on their skin and white paint on their lips, they could play any black person, since African-Americans all looked the same and essentially existed for white amusement. And while the actual act of putting on blackface is no longer socially acceptable, the mentality behind it remains, which is why most people with a degree of consciousness and awareness deem it to be offensive and inappropriate.
When blackness has been marginalized, discriminated against and, in some instances, been a signifier of inherent inferiority, it’s the height of mocking and offense to throw on blackness as a lark to get laughs or draw attention at a party.
Now, all of this will be a bit heady for most children to understand. There is every reason to believe that a 9-year-old might sincerely ask why he or she can’t put paint on their skin if they want to dress as Nick Fury of the Avengers or Storm from the X-Men for Halloween.
So give them some quick background: Putting on blackface is treating people like objects, like they’re toys instead of people.
Assure them that nobody is going to have to guess too hard that a 9-year-old blond kid with an eye patch in a black trench coat is the leader of a band of superheroes. And reinforce what most people learned as children: Just because something doesn’t make any sense to you or doesn’t hurt your feelings does not give you carte blanche to be offensive and claim ignorance.
Blackface (or any other racist Halloween costume) is not a huge conundrum for most people. Adults just want to have fun and dress inappropriately, and kids just want candy and more candy. However, if your college-aged son or daughter is dead set on wearing blackface and getting caught on Instagram, they could end up learning this lesson one way or another.
This article originally appeared online at HLN Headline News.