Social media sites stirred in frenzy this past Halloween weekend as photographs of people in blackface–faces colored black to represent a person with darker skin–surfaced the internet. The extremity of the costumes varied. Julianne Hough faced major criticism after going in blackface to replicate the ethnic background of a character from the hit-series, Orange is the New Black. But perhaps one of the most insulting examples of blackface this fall was a photograph of costumers that mocked the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young black male who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman in 2012.
The photo shows three people posing for the camera. The female in the middle is dressed as a PG-13 rated Robin Hood, or “Robbin da Hood” to keep things classy. One male, without face make-up, is holding his hand like a pretend gun, wearing a shirt that says “Neighborhood Watch”–a reference to George Zimmerman who shot the teen–and the third person represents Trayvon–a bloodied grey sweatshirt and coal-black face paint.
Blackface is a deeply rooted, racist tradition that has been a part of American history since the late 18th Century. Due to its historical context and racial implications, blackface in any form or on any race is a demeaning and derogatory practice.
The practice became prominent in minstrel shows, where white males would perform music and plays, most often in blackface. The make-up used includes coal, or black grease to color the skin, and the lips remained bright pink. The shows themselves largely contributed to racial stereotypes that are negatively associated with black culture today, including promiscuity, theft, laziness and exaggerated behaviors. The characters portrayed were always done so in a negative light. The blacks themselves were seen as second –class citizens, so to don the very make-up that represented a dark, racially segregated past seems to suggest not only the ignorance of the individual in blackface, but also their lack of racial sensitivity and cultural awareness.
Caitlin Cimeno, the Florida native who originally posted the Trayvon photo on Facebook, has since been fired from her job. The identities of the black facers have been posted to social media sites, and have long been humiliated. While the poor choices of these men and women were publicly punished over the usage of social media–the historical context and darkness behind blackface must be entirely understood. Blackface is wrong, in any way, shape or form.