88ºF

Here's why blackface is so offensive

Megyn Kelly
Megyn Kelly (CNN Image)

Talk show host Megyn Kelly was reportedly let go by NBC last week after she said she didn't believe blackface to be racist, defending the act "as long as you were dressing as a character."

Kelly questioned, "What is racist?" during her Tuesday segment on Halloween costumes.

"You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween," Kelly said. "Back when I was a kid, that was OK just as long as you were dressing as a character."

She later apologized for her remarks, but her comments ultimately led to her separation from NBC and sparked outrage online as many elaborated on the racist history of blackface.

While some see it as a Halloween costume accessory, blackface is rooted in insulting minstrelsy performances whose focus were to mock enslaved Africans.

What is minstrelsy?

Minstrelsy, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, is the "comedic performances of 'blackness' by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up."

Blackface is essentially a modern-day example of minstrelsy.

In the 1830s, whites would blacken their face with burned cork or shoe polish, dress in raggedy clothing and mock enslaved Africans during their minstrel performances. According to the museum, the performances would characterize slaves as "lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual and prone to thievery and cowardice."

READ MORE ON THE MUSEUM WEBSITE

According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the first popularly known blackface character, Jim Crow, was created by Thomas Dartmouth Rice. Rice is known as the "Father of Minstrelsy."

The Jim Crow character performed to music and donned tattered clothing.

Minstrelsy gained popularity in the late 1860s, during the end of the Civil War, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Blackface goes mainstream

American actors such as Shirley Temple and Judy Garland performed in blackface, but as the nation moved away from mainstream endorsements of discriminatory practices and behaviors, the use of blackface didn't die.

According to Vox, performances featuring individuals with manually blackened faces were on TV as recently as 1978.

While minstrel performances aren't still ongoing, the use of blackface is.

Recently, an Iowa school teacher wore dark brown paint on her face and body to a Halloween party. The educator claimed she was dressing as Lafawnduh, a character from "Napoleon Dynamite."

The teacher's actions are currently under investigation.

"What is racist?" Megyn Kelly asked

Washington State University professor David J. Leonard penned an editorial for Huffington Post in 2012 listing the number of racist roots blackface has, emphasizing that one's ignorance is no reason to partake in the practice.

"There is no acceptable reason to ever don blackface. It’s not a joke; it isn’t funny," he wrote. "No claims about humor or creative license can ever make it okay. Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence."

While those who wear blackface may intend no harm, it's important to consider the degrading, racist history of the practice, which is grounded in the humiliation and mockery of slaves.

Should you wear blackface on Halloween?

No.