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Ask Dr Racism: Blackface, Cosplay, Intent, Reactions, and Responsibility

March 5th, 2013 by | Tags:

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:


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:


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.

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38 comments to “Ask Dr Racism: Blackface, Cosplay, Intent, Reactions, and Responsibility”

  1. That Crowder quote at the end, perfect. Great post.


  2. Your point about not wanting to have to educate people is an interesting one, because if you flick through that thread on Bleeding Cool you’ll see that ultimately people don’t want to be educated.


  3. I don’t want to derail this post in any way, but man. Justified? So, so good. I was ridiculous happy to see you reference it.

    Also, I don’t believe for a second that someone above the age of, say, fifteen can walk out of the house in blackface and not know that people will be offended. That’s basic.


  4. I’ve never been more ashamed of, or angry at, someone close to me than when my little brother thought it was a good idea to go as Uncle Phil in blackface to some shitty party.

    I think Tropic Thunder did a pretty great job of attacking blackface, but then because it was such a massive film a ton of fucking idiots went to see it and then saw it as an excuse to do blackface and claim it was satirising racism rather than just being straight-up racist (or they just didn’t get that it was even satire in the first place and just thought it was silly costume along the lines of Tom Cruise’s fat suit). I never know where that sits on an intent/impact scale. With a film (or any art) that big should people shy away from those sort of things or does that risk too much sticking us with an endless procession moronic beige blockbusters with nothing worthwhile to them that don’t have the slightest chance of making anyone think? What point do you say ‘fuck it’ with art? Like I’m sure there are dickheads who used that Constantine issue as a greenlight to just start throwing racial slurs around. Ties me up in knots whenever I get into that sort of question.


  5. I hate when people play dumb about it. “Oh I didn’t Know it was offensive” “Oh I didn’t mean to Offend you” “It was all in fun” I call Bullshit just like everyone with a developed brain needs to call bullshit. It’s out there. It’s known. this is not something that you are not aware of unless you were raised poorly or under a rock or just plain ignorant. And you know what? in those cases? It’s still no excuse. Cause the people around them should have said something. Unless they too grew up in a vacuum.


  6. As someone who considers himself something of a comedian, I’m glad this post exists because for the longest time, I’ve believed that the absolute funniest thing mankind has given us is blackface. And now I can explain why.

    It’s the perfect mix of stupidity, awkwardness, insanity and just enough tragedy. It’s both an extreme form of racism and yet one of the least malicious. At least, nowadays. Like, nobody who does it is doing it out of hate. Even most people who WOULD do it out of hate are smart enough not to do it. They’re doing it because they’re fucking idiots. David paraphrased it best. “Did you see him? Can you beLIEVE him?” If you dress in blackface, chances are you thought you had this great idea, setting yourself up to look like a gigantic dimwit tool. It’s a hilarious failure.

    This whole situation backs me up. Blackface Geordi is surreal enough on its own, but then you add in those Bleeding Cool comments from people who are mad that somebody is offended by something that is pretty damn offensive. It’s sad, but at the same time, I’m laughing my ass off.


  7. ….and only black people get to say “THE N WORD” and blah blah blah. This aint the fucking 1920’s. Hell, it’s not even the 1980s. I dont give a rats ass what happened with Abe Lincoln 150 years ago before every single black person currently living in the world was born and whatever the fuck with Al Jolson and some black actor couldn’t get a job in the 20s and flash forward to 2013 and tsk tsk to you white folks, you cant do that because us black folks get to decide what you can say and can’t say and mean mr. blackface zombie hurt my widdle feewings. The days of anyone owing anything to black people or native americans or railroad building chinese or whoever the fuck else are O. Ver. Go to school, get good grades, become president or supreme court justice or Secretary of State or learn to play fucking basketball and shut the fuck up. By the way, there’s a difference between being genuinely offended and going through the motions because something happened a hundred years ago that we’re OBLIGED to be offended about because we have to toe the line or we’ll lose our naacp membership cards. White guilt got you a president. That’s as far as your credit goes.

    This is the same shit we’ve had to hear with feminism. Hey! This woman isn’t offended! But wait! This woman is! NO NO, don’t believe that woman because she’s internalizing misogyny and clearly isn’t ONE OF US! Who do I believe? Whoopie Goldberg totally thought Ted Dansons black face was a hoot at that roast! But obscure twitter asshole got all offended by black face geordi! Wait! Who do I believe? Whatever shall we do? Guess what? I’m tired of trying to decode the secret language of “lets have an honest, open dialogue about race and educate them crackers!” because it’s fucking bullshit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to finish working on my Rosa Parks cosplay. Fuck you and fuck your “education.” Are we clear, asshole?


  8. See what I mean? Look at this fucking joker.


  9. @Hattie McDaniel: Holy shit.


  10. someone’s MAD


  11. How surprising that someone who thinks we stopped fucking over minorities 150 years ago also thinks that feminism is unnecessary.


  12. Ugh. That’s such an infuriatingly obvious derailment of the issue. Instead of actually discussing the offensive subject, they’ve made it about your reaction to it. Protip for everyone in the privileged majority: you don’t get to decide how people in the minority react to shit. Period. You don’t have the right perspective to judge what is or isn’t offensive. How is this hard?


  13. So could it be considered evolution or devolution that he forewent the traditional “I’m not racist, but” before farting all that out?


  14. What I’m wondering is, where was the ECCC staff in all of this? The guy had to at least pass by people who work with this event, to say nothing of security. How does no one think to walk up and say, “Dude. Not a good idea”?


  15. @Joshua: Great article David. I got so distracted by some random wall of text that I forgot the reason I’d originally scrolled down to the comments section. As a white dude usually surrounded by a bunch of other white dudes your writing consistently helps me iron out my own thoughts and opinions on how to be less of an asshole.


  16. [...] 4thLetter, David Brothers, aka, “Dr. Racism” talks about “Blackface, Cosplay, Intent, Reactions and Responsibility.” “You don’t have to know the history of race relations to not be a dick about [...]


  17. IF YOURE COOL WITH BLACKFACE YOU ARE A RACIST

    FUCK RACISTS


  18. @Hattie McDaniel: I’d rather white guilt take care of these student loans than get some dude I never met a chance to be king of the world

    @Morgan Jeske: I’m so glad someone caught that :)

    @Asher: Right?! Last week’s episode was pretty great. I honestly had like half a dozen conversations about it last weekend?

    @Jbrig: I figure for every idiot who gets it wrong, somebody else out there gets it right. I’m all for movies (and other stuff) doing challenging things.

    @Gavok: You are SO right. I meant to talk about the Louie sketch in here, or at least link it. It’s such a good example, because the whole joke is that children are innocent and ignorant, and sometimes adults are too cowardly to say “Listen. Listen.”


  19. I think for intent I would have gone with, ‘If you run over someone in your car, the only difference intent makes is how much time you spend in jail, not whether or not you did something wrong.’

    But then people would probably complain about equating blackface to vehicular homicide as a simile-squadron of English teachers whoosh over their heads.


  20. Blackface wouldn’t even be a problem except that racists ran it into the ground as a way of mocking blacks. As usual, racists ruin EVERYTHING. If you’re mad that you can’t wear blackface without experiencing blowback, blame the racists.


  21. you know I was gonna say that i was grateful that 4thletter is the only site I can think of where I can read the comments on articles without fear but then…


  22. @david brothers

    God yeah. “I’m the Outlaw, and this is MY world.” Walter Goggins is the absolute best. He could teach a master class in line readings. Have you ever considered writing specifically about Justified? I’d enjoy reading your take on it.

    I’ve definitely been to costume parties here on campus (The University of Alabama) where people have shown up in blackface. I’ve never quite known how to handle it, because there’s part of me that just stares and goes “what? really?


  23. @Chunky Style: @Chunky Style: You didn’t read this article, did you. You just read the words “black face” and put out your “ohh blackface wouldn’t be terrible if” as a sarcastic zing. Well aren’t we just elated.

    This isn’t about blame and forwarding our problems on scapegoats. This is about making the choice to be better people ourselves.


  24. @Tom: there is some pretty devastating irony in you not reading his post, i think, though your second paragraph is correct


  25. @Chunky Style: I apologize, I completely misread Chunky’s comment there and I’m sorry.


  26. @Tom: It’s cool, this is one of those topics where we lead with our instincts, and I recognize the misleading “tone” to what I just said.

    I do think it’s important to dissect those instincts, though. Like when it comes to blackface, it IS fair to ask why it’s wrong and whether it’s inherently wrong, if for no other reason than to make sure you’re operating off principles that are worth upholding. And the conclusion I come to is, blackface is a tradition that has been used for racist purposes for so long, it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the two at this point, and that’s the problem with blackface.

    Unless you’re Louis CK’s daughter, of course. She rocks the Frederick Douglass look.

    So is it any different that, for example, Ben Kingsley went and darkened his skin to portray Gandhi? Well, the intention is pretty different than minstrel shows, and additionally the British don’t have a history of doing the equivalent of minstrel shows against Indians. Racists haven’t ruined that, so as long as the intent remains respectful and not racist, it’s okay in that case. Still makes me a little queasy at some level, but then I take a deep breath and realize that no, this isn’t the same thing.


  27. The whole Cloud Atlas thing is interesting, since (and I’m paraphrasing a review, since I never saw the movie) it seemed the Wachowskis were trying to make some point about race/gender/etc. as social construct. If that’s the case, do you consider it like Ennis’ Hellblazer or just another example of blackface?

    @Hattie McDaniel: Looks like we got a Bigot Bingo.


  28. @Chunky Style: I don’t know how much it matters, but Ben Kingsley is of Indian descent.


  29. @Samuel Erkison: True, and that just underscores how difficult it is to come up with absolute pronouncements about blackface, clapping on two and four, or anything else. But if you go back to principles — both utilize them AND reassess them — you can make better calls about this sort of thing.

    One thing I meant to add earlier: a while back I said “if you’re mad that you can’t wear blackface without experiencing blowback, blame the racists.” I find that’s the quickest response to privileged white folks who are getting cranky about some racial inequity they must endure, such as not being able to say “nigger”. As a privileged white guy myself, I find it pretty appallingly stupid, but trying to explain it to them in terms of “context” and “history” rarely satisfies them. Expressing it in terms of whom to BLAME, on the other hand, works pretty well.

    Racists. They ruin everything.


  30. @Chunky Style writes:

    So is it any different that, for example, Ben Kingsley went and darkened his skin to portray Gandhi? Well, the intention is pretty different than minstrel shows, and additionally the British don’t have a history of doing the equivalent of minstrel shows against Indians. Racists haven’t ruined that, so as long as the intent remains respectful and not racist, it’s okay in that case. Still makes me a little queasy at some level, but then I take a deep breath and realize that no, this isn’t the same thing.

    Well, there’s also the fact that Kinsley is actually Indian, or at least of Indian descent. His birth name is actually Krishna Pandit Bhanji. It’s just that his skin isn’t as dark as that of Mohandas Gandhi, hence the makeup.


  31. [...] The internet is still churning over two cosplayers at Emerald City Comicon who wore blackface. One was a white guy playing Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Geordi La Forge, and the other was a woman and her friends posing as The Walking Dead‘s Michonne and her zombie entourage. [...]


  32. David, once again..bravo Sir. It reminds me of the old Dave Chapelle line about “Have you ever seen something so racist that….” I saw some of that personally at the NYCC.. I often see that in clips from SDCC (unintentionally I hope)… I just thought that by now people would get the message that dressing up like your favorite character is a cool enough homage….

    …the stereotypical coloring and features could be left at home….

    Now back to planning my “Castle” costume for the next NYCC…


  33. I think my favorite bit in that thread is people trying to differentiate between “minstrel blackface” and some kind of other blackface that’s uh not as bad?

    And Joe Kalicki is the most pathetic human on the comics internet.


  34. @Andrew Taylor: It’s not so much that the Wachowskis were trying to make a point about gender and race as that they were telling the story of the same group of souls reincarnating in different places, and having the same actors playing the core cast of each era was the gimmick used to get hat onto the screen.

    The movie is good, but the makeup is a lot more obvious when it’s a white male actor playing a Korean than in any of the other cross-racial makeup jobs.


  35. “They’ve got people who love them.”

    Obviously they don’t, or they wouldn’t need it explained. I mean, what if you Grandmother wasn’t “on call” that day in the car?

    And yes, it sucks to always be “on call”. But you are. And not because you are the minority. Or because They are racist. But because there is something in the world that offends *you*, Mr. David Brothers, minority of one. No one else can be sure what is going on in your head, or where your lines are. So the first time they tresspass, you explain. And yes, this means that, in this wide web world, you will be explaining for the first time to every Twitter account, e-mail address, and comments section sock puppet. But to do otherwise is to hate them for not being able to read your mind.

    The second time? Be as brutal as you want. Then they – lower-case, individual – really should have known better.


  36. I must say I’ve really had my confidence in humanity shaken in the last few years. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought that having to explain why blackface can offend people would be a thing these days. The same goes for having a “national conversation” about women’s motivations for using birth control…or considering repealing the Voting Rights Act…or discussing the novelty of treating female characters in stories as humans…seriously these are things that should be logged as “common sense” by now!

    If the creators of the Internet knew that this much communication would make us as a population more stupid, would they have gone ahead with it?


  37. @David Oakes: You’re funny, condescending, and wrong. :)


  38. [...] Ask Dr Racism: Blackface, Cosplay, Intent, Reactions, And Responsibility (4th Letter) [...]