Personal anecdotes first, talking about blackface later. Chronological order right here:
In kindergarten, this kid I was friends with sang a song to or at me. It went “Jingle bells/Batman smells/Robin laid an egg/Grandma pulled the trigger/and shot a nigger/and Joker got away!” I joked on tumblr that it was the first mash-up because it combined two different songs with the same melody, but in real life I went and got a teacher, who reprimanded him in the limpest way possible.
A few years later, I don’t remember exactly when but young enough for “playing games in the car” to be a thing I still thought was cool, me and my cousin played a game. It went “Chinese mother,” and you pull the corners of your eyelids up. “Japanese father,” and you pull the corners of your eyelids down. “Mixed kid,” and you do one up, and one down. I was in the car with my cousin and grandparents, with my grandfather driving and my grandmother passenger seat driving. And my grandmother, she turned around, right, and she didn’t say anything, but she laid that Look on us. You know the one. It’s kind of looking down the nose with your eyebrows narrowed and your mouth tight. That “I raised you better than that” look, the one that makes you stop what you’re doing cold, apologize, and then never do it again. I’m from a Christian family, and we were raised to do unto others. Be fair, be loving, be honest, be genuine, be right in your life. That stupid joke I picked up from somewhere? Anti-Christian. Full stop. I knew better in the abstract. But not in the specific. I didn’t think it through.
Twenty years later (a complicated and fancy way of saying “a few days ago at Emerald City Comicon”), I found out about a blackface Geordi LaForge cosplayer. I don’t know who he is, and I don’t particularly care, but I did make a joke about it:
somebody let blackface geordi laforge at eccc know i’m coming for him, and hell’s coming with me
— david brothers (@hermanos) March 3, 2013
And that was it, I think? Maybe an RT somewhere. I had a couple conversations over the weekend about that guy, of the “Did you see him? Can you beLIEVE him?” variety. On Sunday, a couple friends told me there were a blackface Walking Dead troupe, only I was so exhausted I was utterly incapable of figuring out what that meant. I got stuck on “There are black zombies in Walking Dead? What a weird costume, blackface aside,” and sort of forgot about it.
Rich Johnston over at Bleeding Cool posted about it, and my tweet (proving even my so-so jokes are pretty funny!!!!), and the message board dudes got MAD that I would threaten VIOLENCE against someone who was just trying to have some FUN and show his RESPECT and all types of other all-caps offended-you’re-offended let-me-tell-you-what-racism-really-is internet fedora dude nonsense. So:
Gimme a minute, I need to think of a good Justified joke about the blackface Walking Dead cosplayers so I can get the twofer
— david brothers (@hermanos) March 5, 2013
I could never figure out a good one, I guess because high concept jokes about the US Marshal Service in film are difficult, but this led to some comic book dudes tweeting at me about it anyway. They had a few points, but I’d heard all of them before, ad nauseam. I’m breaking it up into three sections — intent, offense, and education — which I think covers the spectrum.
Intent: When people bring up intent, they’re talking about what someone meant to do, rather than what they did. And that’s cool, I get it. I didn’t mean to be a dick to Asian peoples when I was a kid. I thought I was just having fun with my cousin. My grandmom knew better and put me in my place.
People intend a lot of things, but the only thing that matters is what they actually do. If what you intended to do is show your respect for someone, and you do it by replicating an incredibly dehumanizing practice, guess what! You’re a jerk. You can be a jerk through ignorance as well as malice. And blackface? Kind of a jerk move.
So no, intent doesn’t matter in this situation. It would be one thing if they were challenging or exploring some idea, as Garth Ennis did in Hellblazer, but they aren’t. They’re dressing up to impress their friends, not comment on our world today.
Shorter version: nobody taking part in that stupid Harlem Shake fad means any harm, but they’re still disrespecting and obscuring the long history of the actual Harlem Shake.
Offense: I’ve had people telling me how offended I get to be when people do offensive things since I was a kid. “It’s just a joke!” is a good one, “they didn’t know any better!” is another. “I hate everyone equally!” is a good’un. But what it comes down to is this: how much something gets to hurt me? That’s an internal process that I honestly don’t have a lot of control over. I can say “I don’t let things bother me,” but that’s a toughguy way of saying “I try to ignore these things that really hurt me inside.” There are some things I don’t care about that are offensive, some I do care about, and that balance isn’t something where I pick and choose. Some jabs hit my kidneys, others my forearms.
But in this case? I keep saying it, but the sum total of me acting on my offense was making jokes about US Marshals. I didn’t go off, I didn’t write an 1655 word essay about blackface, and I still got called upset and condescended to about reactions to offense! YOWZA. It’s “u mad” disguised as “I’m very cool and progressive and positive and you aren’t!”
You can disagree with my response. That’s totally cool. I’ve done/will do that. But c’mon son.
(Another dude said I lost the conversation because I used disrespecting as a verb, and well… if that’s what you say, bruh.)
Education: A different guy, not the condescending guy but another one, said that it was a teaching moment for the lady cosplaying Walking Dead. She’s a good lil gal, never meanin’ no harm. She means well, so why not educate her instead of zinging her to literal death?
That’s a good point, and he’s right. I honestly believe that education is crucial to fixing racism. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t spend Februaries pulling teeth and talking about this stuff with regards to comics until my eyes bleed.
I could have sought out Blackface Geordi or the Alexandra Jolson Walking Dead Trio. I could have explained to them how blackface has been used to lock black entertainers out of the entertainment business. I could have talked about how blackface has been used to dehumanize black people, which in turns makes it easier to think of them as being different and weird and so on. I could talk to them about the utter savagery that America, and the colonies before it, and Europe in general has forced upon the black race, whether African or American or some combo of the two. I could do that in my sleep at this point.
But why does it fall to me to do that? Why does the butt of the joke, the guy who looks at someone “having some innocent fun” that is explicitly something that has been used to destroy and degrade people who look like me? “Listen, maybe if you just told this guy punching you in your guts that it hurts, he’d stop? Maybe he doesn’t know?”
“Boy, if only someone told those colonists that maybe they shouldn’t slaughter native peoples…”
Nah, son. People are going to do what they want to do. Somebody should tell them what’s up. But that ain’t on me. It’s their mess, and I’m expected to clean it up? No. They’ve got parents. They’ve got teachers. They’ve got friends. They’ve got people who love them. Somebody should have told ‘em, but expecting me to do it? To always be on call? That requires a retainer, and you can’t afford me.
You don’t have to know the history of race relations to not be a dick about race. That’s this weird reductio ab absurdum argument, where you have to be an expert to know things. You don’t. You just need a friend, or the internet, or to simply think about what you’re doing beyond “is this fun.”
Blackface isn’t obscure. There’s controversy every year about it, whether in movies like Cloud Atlas or some dumb party in some dumb college in some dumb state. It’s not like I’m getting mad (getting “mad”) about somebody not knowing that… I’m trying to think of a really deep cut bit of savagery here… I dunno, it’s not like I’m expecting people to know that Tommy Hilfiger hates blacks (he doesn’t, but for a while we were sure he did) or that there’s ground up glass in Kool cigarettes (ditto). This is basic. It’s in the news. It was in the news the week of the con!
People know about blackface. And if you don’t know, I guarantee somebody you know knows. If you think, even just a little, you’ll figure this stuff out before you step out of your house in a bad makeup job.
The burden of explaining why it’s offensive? That isn’t on me. If I choose to do it, and I have hundreds of time at this point, I’ll do it. But if I choose to make the joke? I’m going to make the joke. And if you choose to tell me that I was wrong for being offended and making that joke? Son, you are turning a corner that you can’t walk back around.
dr racism out.