Is “Blacking up” always racist??? I don’t think so.

The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as 
  • the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races:
  •  prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior
And it’s a definition I agree with. But it’s in the use of this definition that I fail to understand why “blacking up” is such a racist act.
Maybe I’m wrong, Maybe it is. But I don’t see it; is it my age? Some people lived through the civil rights movement, they remember for lack of a better “real” racism, that is segregation, discrimination and violence because of their skin colour. Some people had to live through slowly changing attitudes and having to endure it 
But to me these experiences, the things people had to struggle through are so far beyond what I know and have experienced that they don’t seem real. For me, it’s History. Fascinating, horrible but distant. Like, how Ancient Athenians when capturing a City would kill all the men and make slaves of women and children. 
In the same way I notice someone’s eye colour, or their hair colour, I notice their skin. I see it, but it has absolutely no impact on how I view a person. It’s just there. And it’s because of this that I struggle to understand why “blacking up”, “ethnic-ing? it up”(Is that even a word) is met with such aggressive condemnation.
I understand that once(long before I was born) white actors “blacked up”, “browned up”, “all of the above up’ed” to portray a derogatory racial stereotype. However, I also feel that just as just as attitudes towards different ethnicities have changed, so to have the motivations behind why people “black up”. 
It seems to me, that the  desire to perceive offence prevails over the attempt to reflect on racial matters. It goes unmentioned that sometimes “blacking up” can have no racist intent, even if people are determined to detect it.
As long as racial portrayals don’t aim to perpetuate ethnic stereotypes. If people dress up as a person or a character, and in the pursuit of honest and factual imitation do change their skin colour, provided that they are not portraying a generic faceless stereotype; I see no reason why people shouldn’t paint themselves brown, white, black, or blue with yellow polka dots. I see no difference between someone dressing up as Paris Hilton, ( fake tan, throw on a blonde wig and pop in some blue contact lenses) Julianne Hough’s infamous Halloween costume and the four York Students who dressed up a the characters from Cool Runnings.
After all, Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
But how does everyone else feel? Let me know via the comments section or by twitter

4 responses to “Is “Blacking up” always racist??? I don’t think so.

  1. Jessica

    It’s not that hard to dress up as a person of another race without doing a poor imitation of said person’s natural skin tone. Buzz Feed had a list up around Halloween, something to the effect if “14 times somebody dressed up as a person of another race without being offensive” that demonstrates that. All of those costumes turned out really well.

    If somebody is offended by my use of someone’s cultural dress, sexualized or not, the decent thing to do is respect that and now whine.

  2. If you’re truly asking this question and want a genuine answer, the first step you need to take is to check who you are to be asking this question to begin with. For example, what makes you feel as though you can answer why “blacking up” isn’t/can’t/shouldn’t be considered racist? I’m asking this as a genuine question. I understand it can be read with some defensive undertones but that’s not my intention.

    As a Pacific Islander woman, I can say that these imitations of others cultures are offensive. Why? Because it’s cultural appropriation. You don’t need to ask any specific permissions to mimic anyone’s culture–it’s a free world. But we shouldn’t assume that all audiences will accept that “mimicry is the best form of flattery” because it’s not. I will always be offended when I see people use parts of my culture when they have no historical connection to it because more often than not, they’re just taking from what they perceive as what “looks good” having not experienced any other part of my culture and sometimes the deep historical contexts pieces of it has–and they’re always doing it wrong. The trend of people taking from what “looks good” to them grows. It avalanches to a point where we (as minorities) are reduced down to those characteristics and images. I can’t tell you enough how many times I’ve been asked as an islander, if I hula almost as though it must be a prerequisite for being from an island. When the rise in tribal prints came up in the fashion world, all summer, all I heard about was one designer taking designs from Fiji, and attributing it as “Aztec Designs”, another taking designs from Maori culture (indigenous ppltns of New Zealand) and acknowledging the European culture behind it, Nike taking from the influence of sacred Samoan men’s tattoos and printing them on to women’s workout pants, so on and so forth. What is ours is taken and forced in to another mold, from the people down to the arts they create, and so much more. This is one of the many avenues that “blacking up” or mimicking someone else’s culture becomes offensive.

    More than that, you can’t ask if “blacking up” is offensive without being black. Or even having an comparative experience that puts you in the shoes of how oppressive racial stereotypes are. The Paris Hilton example is hardly a comparison to what black facing was and we both know that. We’re comparing something done by white actors to reinforce racial stereotypes of African-Americans as buffoons to someone dressing up as a ditzy blonde. What are the stereotypes white women suffer from? Our society reaffirms your beauty everywhere we look (i.e.: Google search Vogue/Elle/Marie Claire/In Style/any fashion magazine cover).

    This is why these types of question require historical context. If you continue to ask them without context, then you will continue to arrive at the conclusions you’ve listed above. If you do want to understand why we get offended at seeing appropriations made about our race or culture, then you need to acknowledge and understand the histories behind them. And when it comes down to it you have to recognize the limits of where you, as an outsider, get to validate whether or not we get to feel offended or not.

    • I don’t believe that I have any right to justify or explain why something’s aren’t, shouldn’t be, can’t be racist. I’m the first to acknowledge both my complete lack of experience with anything to do with racial discrimination and how narrow my possible understanding, considering ny own ethnicity.

      What I’m trying to ask(however clumsily) Is if there are ever occasions when the act of dressing up as another ethnicity is not offensive?

      I agree, cultural stereotyping is offensive. My query is not on that; re: katy perry dressing as a “sexy geisha”; I view it as a display of casual racism that is actually quite shocking.
      I’m trying to ask, if the branding of someone as racist for dressing as an individual from a different ethnicity and not as a caricature of a different race or culture is a little premature? Which I from my very limited viewpoint do in fact think.

      I understand that “blackface” has a long and offensive history. That i can’t relate too(I don’t think White Chicks counts).

      Not too long ago, there was uproar in the newspapers about a boy who had dressed up as his favorite footballer who happened to be black. He painted his face and dyed his hair to meet his hero. Both the parents and the child were branded as offensive and racists. In situations like this, I(perhaps in my ignorance) fail to see how it can be seen as racist. What i’m trying to genuinely ask in my blog is, If there is no stereotype, and there is no intention to offend is it still racist? Which by the definition of the word is not. And if it is not, is not also a possibility that in the desire to not cause offence things are being perceived as racist when they aren’t?

  3. A

    Kiana you make a fantastic point!
    But what if someone does understand the historical and cultural context behind what they are doing and are dressing up and/or creating something based on, that is meant to honor that culture is that still racist? Basically if one understands what they are doing and represents it well is that still racist?
    I’m asking because I want to understand this better.

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