Ignorance about blackface is chance to invite discussion

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Halloween is almost over, thank God. A pagan death rite morphed into a childhood misbehavior and sugar festival transformed, lately, into a randy adult Saturnalia, a kind of Valentine’s Day for couples who haven’t hooked up yet, but will, big time, as soon as enough Budweiser flows through their systems.

Actually, scratch the “childhood misbehavior” part from the above — in our safety-mad era, an evening of Tom and Huck soaping windows and taking fence gates off their hinges would end up with them kneeling in the back of a white Homeland Security van, their hands zip-tied behind them.

Now it’s the adults who act poorly at Halloween, either during their costume beer blow-outs or in the very act of donning those costumes.

My esteemed colleague, Mary Mitchell, looked at an aspect of this in her column Thursday: the tendency for white folk to don blackface make-up despite the long history of mockery and humiliation it represents.

“Are people ignorant or just belligerent?” she asked, and I actually looked up from the paper on the morning train and said aloud, “I’ll answer that one for you, Mary.”

Ignorant. No question. And I have a certain real-life episode in mind. It was last Halloween and … oh, we should draw the veil here … a lovely young woman of my acquaintance announced she would be dressing up at her workplace for Halloween.

“Oh,” I said, smiling, in full friendly chat mode, “and who are you dressing up as?”

“Michelle Obama,” she said, nodding.

“So …” I said, “you’ll be wearing a mask of some kind, a Michelle Obama mask?”

“No, no,” she said, dark makeup and a wig and a business suit. She was obviously proud of her creativity. “Ah,” I said.

What would you do? I am not one to thrust myself into other people’s business, but if I can help them avoid pitfalls, I try to.

“You know …” I continued, or words to that effect, “let me give you a word of advice here (and let’s make up a name) Tiffany, you might want to rethink that choice. I don’t think Michelle Obama is a good idea.”

“No?” she said, puzzled. “Why not?”

I looked at her face, as fresh as a field of new-fallen snow and about as white. Here it would have been helpful to have had Mary Mitchell’s column as a visual aid, and perhaps a felt board with a few cut-out white and black felt characters to convey the story of slavery, Jim Crow, minstrel shows. Maybe a little square of felt to be the Human Resources department where she would be duckwalked, still in blackface, to be fired.

The conversation went on for a few days, and, eventually, I don’t know if my argument prevailed or she just picked a different costume. I suspect it was the latter.

So, ignorance or belligerence? Never underestimate the pivotal role of stupidity in American society. I don’t think frat louts throwing their inevitable slave auction parties are intending to strike out at African-Americans. I don’t think people like my young friend want to stick a knife in their black co-workers and get themselves fired. They’re just ignorant.

Then again, everyone’s a little ignorant of history. Last week, WBBM radio’s “Smart Quiz” question was “What year did World War II end?” That saddened me, almost as much as had the question been, “What is the name of the solar object that glows brightly in the daytime sky?” So much that when the seventh caller did not, of course, know the answer, I wasn’t further saddened. I had already bottomed out. No surprise.

So ignorance should be expected. And it is the better option. Belligerence is untreatable. If I know your history and am mocking you anyway, I’m a bigot and a bad person. If I’m just clueless, well, that can be worked with.

It’s easy to laugh at people who don’t know anything about the past. It feels good — the glow of righteous indignation — but doesn’t win over the ignorant person. Better to be understanding, to use the knowledge we are rightly proud of and gently explain there are many reasons to be aware of the history of race in America, and knowing enough not to cork up at Halloween is just the start of the benefits.

It’s good for all groups, not just blacks, to understand just how lightly others hold their histories. The Holocaust, the slaughter of Native Americans, the oppression of women — whatever wrong burns brightly in your mind is a faint glow, if that, in the minds of many others. They don’t know and, sadly, often don’t care. You need to tell them and make them care. More than a problem itself, blackface is a symptom of a bigger problem.

Follow @neilsteinberg


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