The recent backlash that erupted after model Kylie Jenner posted photos of herself on Instagram in what appeared to be skin-darkening makeup, but was actually dark lighting, is not an instance of racism as some purport, but rather an example of ignorance regarding the offensive historical context of blackface. A lack of knowledge and the sensitive nature of this topic have brought this issue to light on a number of occasions in the past several years, clearly signifying that many people remain unaware of what qualifies as offensive.
Jenner’s photos of her wearing skin-darkening makeup are not truly representative of what blackface is by definition. Blackface is theatrical makeup used historically by a nonblack performer portraying a black character. In the mid to late 1800s, blackface minstrel shows were an important tradition in American theater. Al Jolson, who was prevalent in theater during the early to mid-1900s, performed often in blackface. Although I consider Jolson’s cause for performing in blackface important since it promoted African American music at a time when African Americans were prohibited from performing on Broadway, blackface was still used often to portray black people in a stereotypical, offensive manner. Doing so was done in ways such as making the person’s lips white in order to accentuate and exaggerate the size of the lips. It eventually became its own art form, ending in the 1960s in the United States with the civil rights movement. Following this, blackface was usually limited to satire or social commentary.
Clearly there was little thought given by Jenner and her makeup and lighting artists as to how the lighting used to enhance these photos may be perceived by the public. That, however, does not excuse the unfortunate event. Regardless of whether someone uses “black light and neon lights” to enhance his or her image like Jenner stated that she did on Instagram, or a person decides to truly exhibit blackface, there is no escaping the reality that offense will likely be taken for such a sensitive topic.
In recent years, however, of the counterargument where black people have appropriated white culture. Movies such as “White Chicks,” starring Shawn and Marlon Wayans are instances of this. I am personally less concerned with these men in prosthetics acting as white women than I am regarding the ignorance that allowed these men to satirize a reversal of blackface into something that should not be found funny.
I do not consider Jenner’s Instagram photos to be an intentionally offensive mockery of black people. Jenner and her makeup team, like many other people who have been called to task in recent years for wearing blackface, should not necessarily be labeled racist. Although Jenner’s photos should arguably not be seen as an instance of blackface, there have been recent instances where blackface was used by other celebrities that call to question why so many people remain ignorant of such an offensive act. In 2013, actress, dancer and current “Dancing With the Stars” judge Julianne Hough donned blackface on Halloween to resemble the character “Crazy Eyes” from the Netflix series, “Orange Is the New Black.” Hough issued an apology regarding the incident, stating, “I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.”
Longtime Academy Award host Billy Crystal donned blackface for a 2012 Oscar skit, which paid tribute to entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. While Davis’ family is said to have not been offended, that was not the case for many others who shared their views through emails and social media. Comedian Sarah Silverman’s poorly crafted attempt to call out racism by donning blackface and calling herself Queen Latifah is another example of the fact that it is unacceptable, no matter what the intent may be. Such actions can be easily misconstrued as a blatant mockery and depiction of racist images, attitudes and perceptions that should have been laid to rest long ago.
The lack of historical context and ignorance of the ramifications the act of portraying oneself in blackface is not exclusive to celebrities. In November 2014, twelve senior girls from Missouri’s Sullivan High School donned blackface to compete in a powder-puff football charity event. Principal Julia Schmidt’s initial thought, “Oh my gosh” was followed by the thought, “Oh, they don’t mean anything by it. Just let it go. No one thinks anything about it.” Schmidt was wrong to dismiss the issue, not only because it was later brought to national attention, but also because acceptance of such an event can perpetuate ignorance such as that already present in the school. Additionally, her response showed little thought given the town’s proximity to Ferguson, Missouri and the recent events that had transpired there.
The subsequent realizations and predictable apologies that follow these transgressions, while important to acknowledge, are simply not sufficient. Increased education must be provided on blackface and other offensive topics that perpetuate racial and ethnic stereotypes. People should be taught that altering one’s skin color to appear black, regardless of whether it is done as an art form — such as Jenner claims was done for her photo-shoot — or to pay homage to a favorite character, as was the case with Hough and Crystal, is wrong. Blackface is an issue that unfortunately has permeated the twenty-first century and remains an important issue for those who, unlike some, are aware of its historical context and ensuing ramifications.