Halloween & the Problem of Blackface

by Channon Oyeniran

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Every Halloween, someone, somewhere, knowingly or not, insults black people and the painful and dark legacy that slavery left behind. From using blackface to dressing up as an enslaved person, Halloween 2017 will likely be no different as several examples of such behavior have been in the news recently. It baffles me every year that people still don’t understand why this behavior is deeply offensive. Blackface, in particular,has a deeply problematic history. “Blackface is more than just burnt cork applied as makeup. It is a style of entertainment based on racist Black stereotypes that began in minstrel shows and continues today.” (Source.) Blackface was used in vaudeville, Broadway, silent movies, racist cartoons, and early television to degrade and mock black people. Despite this fact, many people still decide to use blackface every Halloween. Let’s take a brief look at some of the headlines that have been in the news recently regarding the use of blackface and inappropriate costumes for Halloween.

Bridgewater, Massachusetts: “Elementary School Apologizes For Picture That Shows A Black Girl On Leashes

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In Bridgewater, Massachusetts at Mitchell Elementary School, a picture from the school’s pilgrim enrichment program, showcases a black girl in what are called “lead strings”, held by her two white co-students. Apparently in the 17th century “lead strings” were used to keep children from wandering or to help them learn how to walk. While the school says the picture and activity were taken out of context, many people who saw the picture say it is totally disrespectful and offensive. The school, school district and a spokesperson for the pilgrim program issued apologies for the activity and the activity. However, many parents of other students at the school were stunned and disgusted when they saw the picture.

London, UK: “Anger after primary school in Manor Park asks pupils to dress as slaves for Black History Month

Letter-UKAt St Winefride’s Catholic Primary School, in London, year 2 students were sent home with a letter on October 13th stating to “to come into school dressed as slaves for Black History Month.” They then proceeded to include pictures of enslaved black people to show examples of how students should dress! Like really?! This school is asking students to dress as enslaved people, but is this school teaching these students what slavery is, their country’s role it is, why it was wrong and how an activity like that is offensive to many Black Britons and other black people worldwide? Those are these questions I asked when I read this article. Although this letter may not have been an accurate reflection of the entire school and only one teacher, it raises many questions. A spokesperson for the school said this: “We understand the importance of Black History Month and celebrate this by studying the success and achievements of black role models.”

Fort Bragg, North Carolina: “Fort Bragg busted for ‘Spooktacular’ Halloween party with children dressed up in blackface

BlackfaceDuring a Halloween party at Fort Bragg, a military installation in North Carolina, two children were photographed dressed in blackface and with marionette strings, yet another example of someone using blackface, not thinking twice about the history and if it’s offensive to other people. The Fort Bragg community are shocked and many offended that a costume like this would be used. Genessa Bingham, whose father is currently deployed overseas said this: “This is what’s wrong with the country right now,” she said. “People can just be as racist as they want. Then you’re supposed to laugh it off. You know, segregation wasn’t that long ago. My dad is African American.” The picture was removed from Facebook and an apology was given. However, just like the previous examples as well many other examples, it’s clear that people don’t think about the history of things or how it will affect other people.

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We CAN do better.

Blackface is certainly not the only way to be offensive this Halloween. For more on cultural appropriation of other cultures, see the resources below. Furthermore, you may be asking, “Does this mean that white people can’t dress up as a black person they appreciate and admire?” No. But there’s a certain way to do it, and there is absolutely NO need to change your skin color to do so. 

GQ published a helpful (and hilarious) how-to last year with Kumail Nanjiani: How To Choose a Halloween Costume That Isn’t Racist” by Caity Weaver. Here’s an excerpt: 

Choose a Subject Identifiable by Name

When it comes to costumes, the more specific your outfit is, the funnier it will be. Dressing up as “a black man” is a bad idea. Dressing up as “Barack Obama” is a mediocre idea. Dressing up as “Casual, Retired Obama” is a funny idea—and a great opportunity to eat frozen treats while wearing comfy clothes.

How To Be You, But Casual, Retired Obama

  • Pair a baggy short-sleeve button-down shirt with baggy, pleated Dockers (belted above the navel).
  • Top with a salt-and-pepper wig, extra salt.
  • Wear a thick gold band on your ring finger.
  • Eat tons of ice cream cones, you ice cream monster.

Moral of the story: Be thoughtful about how you (and your kids) dress this Halloween. Keep it fun for everyone, by not unintentionally offending an entire people group.


For more information:

On Halloween Costumes:

On Cultural Appropriation:

On Blackface:

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