Every Halloween, people take the opportunity to step out of their lives and into a playful realm where they can dress up as anything they can imagine: make-believe for adults. Halloween is the one time of year largely free from judgment. Women can go as a sexy [insert object or occupation]. Men can dress in drag. Couples can indulge in the saccharine sweetness of matching costumes.
But then there are the people who choose to spend Halloween as someone of a different race. They use blackface, brown face, yellow face or red face to bring just the right amount of authenticity to their look.
Actress Julianne Hough stepped out in blackface over the weekend. She was attending a Halloween party as Crazy Eyes from “Orange Is the New Black.” That’s fine. The show is hot this year and Crazy Eyes is a popular character. Hough wore the prison oranges, had her hair done up in what charitably could be considered Bantu knots and wore a name tag that said “Crazy Eyes.” That should have been enough — the necessary cues were there.
Hough took her costume one step further, though, dousing herself in bronzer to darken her skin so she might better resemble Uzo Aduba, the actress who plays Crazy Eyes. The blackface did nothing of the sort. It never does. Instead, Hough looked like she spent way too much time out in the Los Angeles sun before stepping out that evening. Once the images of Hough in her ill-informed costume were released, the Internet went crazy.
Here we were, yet again, having this bewildering conversation about why blackface, given its historical uses and the ongoing sensitivity around issues of race, will never be an appropriate costume choice. The apology parade began, and Hough said: “I am a huge fan of the show ‘Orange is the New Black,’ actress Uzo Aduba and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people, and I truly apologize.”
We know this dance. Public figure makes misstep. Public figure apologizes. That apology is then dissected endlessly, and we’re left wondering if the public figure even knows what they’re apologizing for.
Hough wasn’t alone in donning blackface for Halloween. Her costume was, in fact, the least offensive. As Gawker reports, two young men in Massachusetts spent Halloween as George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. The man dressed as Martin smeared his face with black makeup and wore a “bloody” sweatshirt. In the most widely circulated image, the Zimmerman wannabe holds his fingers, cocked as a pistol, against the other fellow’s head. The image is chilling, repulsive, but mostly pathetic. On Instagram, there’s a picture of an unidentified white man also posing as Trayvon Martin — the blackface, the bloody sweatshirt — but he steps up his game, so to speak, by also holding a pack of Skittles and an iced tea. I’m not sure what’s worse — that this was a viable costume idea or that the same absurd idea occurred to more than one person.
There’s always pushback when people say “Blackface is wrong.” It’s “just jokes,” an excuse that belies a complete misunderstanding of humor. There’s a lot of nonsense about the freedom of speech. Sad individuals might remind us of the 2004 movie “White Chicks,” in a crowning moment of false equivalence. I choose to believe these people are simply entitled and ignorant about history. I choose to believe they don’t know how blackface was used to create offensive, degrading caricatures of black people — the exaggerated features, the buffoonery, the shuck and jive. The imagery from the 20th century was emblazoned across advertising and children’s toys. Time and again, black people in this country were told: “This is how we see you. This is what we think of you.” Very little has changed.
Racist Halloween costumes are nothing new. Each year, people try to push the envelope. They think they’re being funny, but really, they’re using the freedom of Halloween, the pass we all get to indulge our secret selves, to say, to people of color: “This is how we see you. This is how we think of you.”
Though it is infuriating that we still need to have this conversation about why blackface is unacceptable, there may be some comfort in the knowledge that when people put on the mask of blackface, they reveal who they truly are.
Roxane Gay is a frequent contributor to Salon and has two books, "An Untamed State" and "Bad Feminist" forthcoming in 2014. Follow her on Twitter @rgay.