I don’t know what is more alarming – that we are still having the conversation about how wrong blackface is, or that we have elected officials appearing in blackface in this 21st century.

A common refrain in defense of blackface is that it is all in good fun, a joke, harmless, or not done with the intent to bother anyone. The fact is, thousands seeing someone in blackface are hurt as evidenced by the recent scandals in Virginia, on Megyn Kelly’s TV show and right here in Florida and Eustis.

For those who observe someone in blackface, they reflect on its insidious history. David Leonard, associate professor and chair of Washington State University’s Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies, wrote in a 2012 Huffington Post essay: “Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments of those that describe these offensive acts as pranks, ignorance and youthful indiscretions. Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes…the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries’ worth of injustice.”

Blackface brings back the same feelings, fear and outrage as seeing someone in a white hooded robe or a burning cross. All are symbols of a racist and dangerous past that have no place in the 21st century.

Last year (2018), TV host Megyn Kelly learned quickly how wrong trick-or-treating in blackface is when she mused on live TV, “What is racist? You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was OK just as long as you were dressing as a character.’ The next day Kelly apologized, but the damage had been done. “I learned that given the history of blackface being used in awful ways in this country, it is not OK for that to be part of any costume, Halloween or otherwise.“ Kelly’s show was cancelled within the week.

Costumes … fun … a prank … party themes. None are an excuse when it is at another’s expense.

Last month, Governor DeSantis asked for the resignation of newly appointed Florida Secretary of State, Michael Ertel, after photos of him appearing in blackface/ costume, mimicking hurricane Katrina victims, went viral. A private Halloween party is no excuse; obviously there were people present who were, rightfully, offended by his costume.

Florida Representative Anthony Sabatini dressed in blackface as a Halloween costume, justifying his “childish prank” by saying of his black friend, “I dressed as him and he dressed as me”. Sabatini had no back-up Hispanic friend to justify his dressup Mexican costume – brownface, a sombrero, sarape, mustache – for Cinco de Mayo at Eustis High School, where he was punished and forced to change.

Sabatini’s history is alarming as he is a “millennial,” who are often associated with growing up color and gender blind. His behavior was in the 21st century. Did he not pay attention in his history/civic class, or does he simply not care how his actions hurt and offend a large part of the community? Or how his call for continued support of confederate statues reflect on the same period of time when blackface, white hooded robes and burning crosses were prevalent?

‘In many ways, one’s intent is irrelevant,’ said Professor Leonard. ‘The harm, whether it’s harm in terms of eliciting anger, or sadness, or triggering various emotions or causing [black people to feel] both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, is there. When someone says, ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ well, their real question should be not ‘Did I mean it?’ but, ‘Am I causing harm?” Our first and foremost question should always be, “Am I causing harm”? When in doubt, don’t!    

Nancy Hurlbert

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