Dear White People: Blackface Is Not OK
An Alabama elementary school teacher made national headlines this week for doing something white people do every October.
Heath Morrow, a fifth-grade teacher at Chestnut Grove Elementary in Decatur, Alabama, was pictured with his wife, Shannon, dressed as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian for a Halloween party. In the photo, Heath is wearing Kanye’s infamous Graduation-era shutter shades, holding a “Kanye For Prez 2020” sign—and sporting blackface.
Every October, across America, white people don blackface. And every October, white people act like they don’t know that there is a problem with blackface.
“Some of my husband’s best friends are black. There was no racial intent whatsoever,” Shannon said. Heath issued an apology via statement.
“I would like to first apologize for my error in judgment, but my intentions were not malicious or directed toward any certain group of people,” he wrote. “I would also like to say that everyone who knows my character and knows my heart, knows that I have never seen color in my life.”
“I wasn’t raised or taught that way and do not raise my children that way. I see people for who they are, and my wife and I go out of our way to help anyone we can in my profession as an educator. When deciding to dress up for a Halloween party, my wife and I made a decision based on celebrities and the political climate today. I do not want this to reflect on my school or school system based on my poor decision that I made. Again I apologize and this will not happen again.”
If Morrow had never seen color, he wouldn’t have felt the need to paint his face to portray a famous rapper. I’ve seen black women dress as Marilyn Monroe more times than I can count—can’t recall any that needed white face paint to pull it off. But that empty “never seen color” sentiment has never been honest—or even noble. It’s the sort of greeting card “So You Were Caught Being Racist As Hell” response that only further confirms that the offender is tone-deaf and entitled. Maybe Heath and Shannon Morrow should see color enough to respect the oppression that black people have faced in this country. That is the smallest way for Mr. Morrow to honor those black friends he supposedly has.
This isn’t about sensitivity. White people mocking blackness sits at the root of so much of the cultural contempt that has been used to oppress and stigmatize blackness for generations. It goes beyond personal spoofing when Ellen DeGeneres mocks Nicki Minaj for having what is a common physical trait associated with black women. Or when a white schoolteacher paints his face brown as if he can’t possibly re-create his favorite rapper without being racially demeaning.
In the same year that we heard white frat boys chant that “There will never be a nigger SAE” and little black girls are getting thrown across classrooms by muscle-bound white cops, we have white people still painting their face and hiding their hands.
“I didn’t know dressing up as a celebrity couple would cause so much controversy,” Shannon told the New York Daily News. “There was no malicious intent in this costume. It’s for HALLOWEEN, the one time a year it is okay.”
The one time a year it is okay. Unless, that is, you were paying attention last year. When it wasn’t okay. Or the year before that. Or the year before that.
This is beyond trying to be festive for the holiday. Every year, countless non-white trick-or-treaters dress as very Caucasian comic book heroes, celebrities, and movie characters. If a little black girl wants to be Wonder Woman, she doesn’t have to wear “whiteface” to do it. Conversely, if your kid wants to be LeBron James, he doesn’t have to paint his face brown. No—this is cultural pushback. The same reason privileged white kids have blackface “hip-hop” parties but you probably have never seen their black counterparts at prominent HBCUs wearing blond wigs and affecting “you betcha” Midwestern accents as they bop arhythmically to The National. You won’t hear Greek organizations on black campuses chanting gleefully about excluding non-black people. Part of what maintains white supremacy is its position as a sort of cultural default in America. As long as America runs on whiteness—or at the very least, presents itself as such—any and every “other” is subjected to crass dehumanization.
Maintaining whiteness is why there is “controversy’ over a pro football franchise with a slur as its team name, and why a Southern white woman can believe that Halloween is the “one time a year” when blackface is “okay.” You are expected to convince oppressors who are sitting in the more privileged position why they shouldn’t reduce you to a caricature. Whiteness maintains its position as a cultural standard by the distorting and mocking of blackness on a fairly routine basis—and that position is why the fetishizing of blackness has such a damaging cultural effect. Non-white people and platforms can’t really reduce whiteness to caricature—even as it’s parodied—because they don’t have the cultural or structural influence to affect white people in the same way that they will be affected by white people.
White people can dress like rappers for Halloween. Miley Cyrus rocked an awesome Lil Kim costume some years ago. And there was the white couple who re-created Jay and Bey’s “On the Run” Tour pose. And, for what it’s worth, Jimmy Fallon’s Lucius Lyon impression is hilarious. Embracing hip-hop and distorting blackness are not anywhere near the same things. Wearing blackface is mocking black people—so Halloween is not an excuse for embracing your inner Al Jolson. But, like pumpkin spice, this is a huge part of October for so many white Americans. So maybe we can just ask that you stop pretending you don’t get it. It’s the worst part of this time of year.
Well, blackface—and candy corn.