crossingfrontieres

Home » Uncategorized » Rachel Dolezal’s White Skin, Black Mask

Rachel Dolezal’s White Skin, Black Mask

There was a time when the practice of white face transformed to blackface was popular. When blackface was a form of theatrical makeup used to represent a black person, and when Blackface minstrel shows were popular. It lasted for about 100 years – between the 183os to the 1930s – and became an American national art in 1848.

AL-G-Fields-Minstrels-New-York-Blackface-Jump-Jim-Crow-TD-Rice-1828

But while blackface was popularizing black culture, the stereotypes embodied in  the stock characters of blackface minstrels were playing a significant role in  cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide.  These sterotypes included characters who were buffoonish, lazy, superstitious,  cowardly, and lascivious and who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the  English language. In fact, Florence Kate Upton’s “Golliwog” in 1895 was  described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”, googly-eyed, inky skin,  exaggerated white, pink or red lips became common in entertainment, children’s’ literature, toys and games as well as cartoons, comic strips, ads, postcards, food branding like Banania – a chocolate powder in France.

golliwog

Through the 1930s, many well-known entertainers of stage and screen went on to perform in blackface including Al JolsonEddie Cantor, Bing CrosbyFred AstaireMickey RooneyShirley Temple and Judy Garland [an extensive list can be found at Strausbaugh, John (2006) Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture. Jeremy Tarcher, Penguin: 222-225].

In the early years of film, whites also performed blackface routinely by portraying black characters. In the first known short film Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) all of the major black roles were whites in blackface [John Kenrick, Blackface and Old Wounds; musical]. Even the 1914 Uncle Tom starring African-American actor Sam Lucas in the title role had a white male in blackface as Topsy [see John Strausbaugh (2006) Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin]. David Griffiths The Birth of a Nation and America’s first full length feature film in 1915 used whites in blackface to represent ‘all’ of its major black characters [Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1998), University of California Press, p. 79], but reaction against the film’s racism largely put an end to this practice of blackface in dramatic film roles.

blkface2

blackface 1

Thereafter, whites in blackface would appear almost  exclusively in broad comedies or  “ventriloquizing” blackness [Strausbaugh 211-12] in the  context of a vaudeville or  minstrel performance within a  film [Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants  in the Hollywood Melting  Pot (1998), University of California Press: 79].

Of course, made-up whites routinely played Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, and so forth, for several more decades, and still do, for example during halloween, but there is no consensus about a single moment that constitutes the origin of blackface, according to Strausbaugh: it as part of a tradition of “displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers” that dates back at least to 1441, when captive West Africans were displayed in Portugal [Strausbaugh 35-36]. Today, blackface remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and more commonly used as social commentary or satire. That is until Rachel Dolezal hit the headlines.

The Dolezals are white, but Rachel identifies as Black. When Rachel Dolezal was a teenager, her parents adopted four black children, one of whom now lives with her and her son, whom she had with her former husband, Kevin D. Moore, who is black.  Dolezal has lived a life as a black person. Some argue that she misrepresented and lied about her race. But she didn’t paint her face black, and instead took on the whole persona of a black person: in face, mind, and body. That makes her NOT part of the blackface tradition of “displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers”. She was forced to ‘come out’, much like homosexuals and transgenders, and, as we’ve been discovering over the years, not everyone who ‘comes out’ is a bad person.  Jenner was applauded for changing his identity from male to female and lauded with praise. So, too, many gays and lesbians who proudly and promptly went out and got married immediately upon countrywide same-sex marriage recently. Their biological identity did not limit them. Why should Rachel Dolezal’s?

The Jenner-Dolezal argument is a slippery one though. Caitlyn Jenner can transition and find herself in a community she feels comfortable in without hatred, but Rachel can’t. If Caitlyn has a right to be a woman, Rachel should have a right to be black. Jenner was trapped in a man’s body but identified as woman, and Rachel was black in a white body. She has been a fierce and unrelenting champion for African Americans, politically and socially, doing a first rate job, teaching classes on African American culture, leading NAACP, chairing police committee overseeing fairness in police activities [which is in very short supply]. The black community is better off because of Dolezal’s efforts. For those, white or black – like Baz Dreisinger, an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York – who think that it taps into all of the issues around blackface and wearing blackness and that whole cultural legacy, which makes it that much more vile,” get over it ! The so-called ‘deception’, ‘lie’, ‘portrayal’ of Dolezal as someone she isn’t did « not » harm anyone. Her deep commitment to black causes and culture only helped black culture.

The fight for equality is too important to all Americans to lose someone as passionate as Dolezal. Someone who has accomplished as much as she has is not a conspiracy to defraud [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Time June 15, 2015] and seems more a case of her standing up and saying, “I am Spartacus!” Rachel Dolezal is no modern day blackface, and doesn’t like the term ‘African American’, but prefers to be grouped by blood type. I’d say that that’s a way to eliminate racism and branding, but not a deception. She passes the ‘race’ test, because race is not in the DNA; there is no gene for race.  Dolezal opted out of this social construct. She opted out of whiteness and into blackness which fences us in boxes. Rachel stepped outside that box, dismantling what was in place. She adopted the cultural elements of a different cultural group not to misappropriate, but appropriate them as her ‘own’; neither distorting or desecrating these elements, but instead endowing them with deep meaning against the dominant culture, which oppresses that group whether in Alabama, in DC, in NY and elsewhere. And although Rachel opted out of her ‘race’ racism isn’t dead which is precisely why she stayed in another identity. Her entire purpose to emulate the black and be like a black person made her a black woman. She wanted a different reality, a different world for blacks so decided to change her own world.

Dolezal did not act immorally. Morality can be subjective, and what is subjective can become objective.


7 Comments

  1. Surekha Rao says:

    Fascinating woman, I am sure there are others like Rachel, and I think they are heroic for giving up their skin privileges to work on making the the world a better place for black people, and living a life they find more true for them. What is wrong with her parents for calling her out in such a public, and negative manner? Especially if they adopted four black children? Could they not tolerate their daughter abdicating her whiteness?

  2. wishbone2014 says:

    Great historical account of blackface. I remember Al Jolsen and Eddie Cantor from my childhood. No one considered evil intent was behind blackface, but it served evil well in the final analysis. No cadre of blacl war heros, sports heros, entertainers, scientists, orators or other highly accomplished people could undo the impressions left in the minds of whites who witnessed blackface directly. This happened in spite of how benevolent the attitudes of the whites may have been.

  3. Rhett says:

    Very good retrospective of the role of Blackface and Minstrel Shows in American popular culture in the late 19th/early 20th century. But it must be pointed out that the minstrel shows still continue in America to this very day. The point of the minstrel show was to entertain an audience by making up whites to play black men and women as ignorant buffoons. But in present day America, far too many black “entertainers” have taken this job upon themselves. What, after all, are rappers who glorify the gangster street life, who parade their own ignorance and disrespect for society, who promote a hatred of learning and majority morality doing? They are presenting a face–a black face–to the world that resembles the one that Minstrel stock characters like “Zip Coon” of a hundred years ago. Spike Lee once denounced the gangster subculture by pointing out that in the last century white entertainers donned black face to make African-Americans look like fools, but now black entertainers have taken over that role for themselves. Hand-wringing over the past is pointless, let’s all take a stand against those “entertainers” who glorify a subculture that celebrates ignorance, violence, criminality, sexism, homophobia and a whole range of other pathologies. In 1915 it was white skin, black mask…in 2015, it is too often black skin, black buffoon mask.
    All of us–white, black and brown–should join hands to drive this out this subculture that is poisoning young minds.

    • A good point you make in pointing out the black skin’s own ‘minstrelizing’ today. Somehow though it is ok to do that yourself but another race cannot. But you’re right in the way some present ‘blackface’. I think you’re saying that they don’t need others to do that anymore ‘towards’ or ‘for’ them? The way only blacks can say the n- word but others can’t?
      Another thing is that comedy allows for anything to be said and done. There should be a limit to that too. But when you think of it what makes us laugh in comedy is not necessarily that thing that’s simply funny, but that which rings some real life experience – felt, heard or transferred via generations or race – because nothing is funny if it is not meaningful to us. Or our lives. Also, some comedians joke about racism (see kondabolu and Rahman) that is also meaningful to them or their race and I see no harm in that kind of comedy. But perhaps other comedians who make rapist jokes, for example feel or see entertainment of ‘rape’ in the same way.
      So how do we differentiate what’s permitted and what’s not is always the Big Question. who decides? Who can speak for whom?
      We live in a society where entertaining is sometimes the only way to say something. But there are limits in that, as in Charlie hebdo. Whatever one says and doesn’t say shouldn’t be at the expense of the marginalized and blacks were marginalized during the minstrelsy period. Perhaps that’s changed and you’re drawing on the fact that the doer has changed to the do-ee?

  4. Rhett says:

    The effect of the minstrel show in 1900 was to present a false picture of blacks as ignorant, lazy, criminal. and that these portrayals on the minstrel stage contributed to white racism against blacks. In recent years, black “gangsta” rappers and other black entertainers who glorify the ghetto subculture with its hatred of learning are creating the same effect as the white minstrel performers of a hundred years ago. That is, they are portraying blacks as ignorant, lazy, criminal, and are thus presenting a false picture of their own race that engenders more anti-black racism. That is my point: that the 1900 minstrel show and the 2015 ghetto/gangsta black subculture are having the same detrimental effect on the way blacks are perceived in the society because both present a false, offensive and dangerous image of black America.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: