I am a bit nervous about publishing today’s Musing and so will issue the following disclaimer: I am not trying to be provocative. I simply want to ask an honest question. What exactly is wrong with dressing up as someone of another race? I’m not even sure what the word blackface means and I don’t know that anyone else does either.
I used to think that the word meant a vaguely insulting parody of a black-skinned person in the manner of Al Jolson in the movie, The Jazz Singer. (Disclaimer #2: I haven’t actually seen the movie, but that is my understanding of it.) I’m sure there are dozens of images in movies from the 1920s that would be unacceptable today. I get that. But the assaults on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Virginia Governor Ralph Northam using that word, confuse me. Let’s be clear. I do not agree with either of the men’s politics and would not vote for them if I was an eligible voter in a race that included them. Nonetheless, I despise the idea that disagreeing with someone politically, even vehemently, means that you should try to destroy them personally. I also object to combing through people’s pasts and judging them by standards that didn’t exist at that time. However, I’m even having trouble understanding why today’s standards see what they did as offensive.
What am I missing? I understand that costumes can be worn that are in bad taste verging on hateful. I would put dressing in a Ku Klux Klan outfit in that category. I would put dressing like a Nazi officer in that category. Doing either of those things shows at a minimum poor judgment, historical ignorance and a lack of sensitivity and, depending on the venue and the person, might well reflect worse. (Even so, destroying people for behavior when they were, in the words of George W. Bush, young and irresponsible seems cruel and counter-productive to me.)
I don’t automatically put dressing in a costume to look like a person other than oneself in the same category. Isn’t that the whole idea of a costume or a dress-up party?
When I was a child, probably around second grade, I owned a book called Taro and the Tofu. To me, it was a tale of a far-away country where people ate exotic food that I had never seen. A few decades earlier, a number of my uncles had fought against Japan in World War II. There was actually something quite amazing about the fact that I wasn’t expected to hate the Japanese, but was instead being introduced to their culture. For Purim (a holiday on which Jews dress up in costumes) one year, a friend of mine who had once lived in Japan wore a beautiful kimono. I don’t remember if she used make-up to give herself Asian features, but I can’t understand why it would be wrong to do so. Isn’t that what dressing up means?
At the same age as I read Taro and the Tofu, I also owned a set of miniature international dolls, each one robed in the traditional dress of his or her country. I believe the collection was bought in the gift store of the United Nations. While a modern Dutch girl most likely doesn’t walk around in wooden clogs, if I wanted a Dutch costume, that’s probably what I would have imitated. I’m hard-pressed to understand if that would be seen as wrong by the politically correct crowd today. Or maybe that would be o.k., but I mustn’t think that I should try to look like the doll from Nigeria? What exactly is the difference?
There are Black rap artists today who dress in Hasidic garb – the clothing of certain sects of Jews. In and of itself, I don’t see what is wrong with that. If I want to dress up as for a party as Hillary Clinton or Melania Trump, am I allowed to do so because I’m a white woman? But if I want to dress up as Michelle Obama that would be offensive because I’m white? The only way I can read that is that I must define Black people as “the other.” Isn’t that a step backwards for society?
After Mao’s communist revolution in China, people were forced to issue humiliating public apologies for past misdeeds. Those “misdeeds” were newly created sins. There was an endless supply of them as new categories of wrong were created. Millions of people suffered as this type of society took control. America today is far from that, but I do worry that we are moving in that direction.
As I said, I’m not a fan of either Prime Minister Trudeau or Gov. Northam. Yet, I would cheer if, instead of apologizing, either of these men declared that the emperor of cultural appropriation has no clothes. Mr. Trudeau said that he should have been more sensitive as to how his actions showed intolerance and discrimination. How exactly did dressing up as he did for an Arabian Nights party do that? Either I’m missing something or this entire ramping up of ways in which we are offended sows division and hatred. It is beyond my understanding how that leads to a better world.
Before we can live in peace with others, it helps to be at peace with ourselves.