Crime and Punishment In Blackface

It came on my radar via my “black friend”* Elie Mystal.

Don’t wear blackface. Ever. IT IS NEVER OKAY. Why is it so hard for people to follow this simple rule? Who are these intellectual moths who find themselves drawn to the flame of wearing blackface?

The initial reports were bizarre. Given the way of life on campus, the idea that a law professor would consider that wearing blackface wasn’t going to create a shitstorm of monumental proportions was incomprehensible. Why would anybody even consider it?

Let’s say you wear it and you get away with it. Let’s say that it doesn’t offend people and it doesn’t end up on the internet and it doesn’t put your career at risk. WHAT HAVE YOU WON? Is there a secret billionaire who runs around giving out PRIZES to white people who wear blackface? WHAT POSSIBLE UPSIDE IS THERE IN THIS? What creatively bankrupt costume are you wearing where you need the blackface to really pull it off?

As it turned out, there was method to the madness.

A fellow UO professor, who declined to be identified, said the offending professor meant her costume to depict “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine,” a recent autobiography by Dr. Damon Tweedy that recounts the racism he encountered in medical school.

Witnesses, who included students and faculty, said she was showing partygoers Tweedy’s book.

The motive wasn’t malevolent or frivolous, even if controversial. There was a point to be made, and the point was in furtherance of eliminating racism. Does that change anything? A letter from 23 academics was scathing.

It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. It doesn’t matter if it was protected by the First Amendment.

Blackface is patently offensive. It is overtly racist. It is wildly inappropriate. It reflects a profound lack of judgment. There is no excuse.

The academics saw a line that could not be crossed, no matter what the reason, what the motive. It’s reminiscent of University of Kansas prof Andrea Quenette, who, in describing her own racial bias, used the n-word, for which she was sent packing. No matter what the circumstances, what the purpose, even if in the cause of ending racism, the word cannot be used.

Quenette was out, and the 23 profs who signed the letter demanded this law prof’s resignation. This brought disgrace on academia, they argued, and deserved the death penalty. Nothing less would suffice.

Sure, training is good and all, but… we really need workshops to explain that BLACKFACE IS A BAD IDEA? It’s like going to a parenting seminar to hear “strategies” for keeping your kid from locking himself in the oven. “I hear what you are saying, but my kid doesn’t do that because… HE IS NOT A DROOLING LEMUR WITH A HEROIN PROBLEM!”

Are there really Oregon LAW professors who need MORE DIALOGUE on this issue?

Is the line that bright? Does context, purpose, motivation matter? Is the offense, in itself, one for which there is no leeway, no latitude, no excuse? Eugene Volokh challenged the orthodoxy.

There’s nothing inherently racist about using dress or makeup to pretend to be black, or white, or Hasidic, or what have you. Indeed, if someone wore blackface and imitated an accent in a way that mocked blacks, she could be faulted for mocking blacks (just as somehow dressing up as an Orthodox Jew to mock Orthodox Jews could be faulted for that). But the notion that making oneself up to look black is just somehow per se racist strikes me as very hard to defend, whether one is trying to play President Obama (or, for that matter, Othello) or the title character in a black doctor’s memoir (“Black Man in a White Coat,” which is apparently what the professor was dressing as) or Michael Jackson.

The distinction he draws is one worth considering, no matter how quickly one rushes to the conclusion. If used to mock, to ridicule, based upon race, then it is not only facially offensive, but intended to be offensive. But is it racist to dress up as President Obama or Othello? Should it be?

There’s no doubt that humor, whether through overt comedy or joking around in costume, is influenced by social conventions and is a matter of taste and judgment. Changing attitudes may well influence people’s choices; some amount of such social response is inevitable, and perfectly proper.

Social convention plays a role in perception. Eugene uses the example of Che Guevara, who was a despicable figure, but one that is inexplicably socially acceptable these days, making wearing Che shirts acceptable. Hitler shirts, not so much. People attuned to social justice will wax poetic on the difference, but the real explanation is nothing more than current fashion trends.

That said, it seems beyond question that the current fashion trend is that you don’t wear blackface, no matter what the reason. Got a really sound, very controversial idea about wearing blackface for the best of social justice reasons ever? So what. Don’t do it. Not because your use of it to make a point may not be valid, but because you will not win, regardless of your motivations.  Unlike a sentence after a conviction for murder, there will be no weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors. You will be executed.

But this sort of social give-and-take is nothing like the demands for ending people’s professional careers, or attempts to use government power to restrict speech. (For a case involving the First Amendment and student blackface, although in a situation that did seem like mockery of blacks, see Iota Xi v. George Mason Univ. (4th Cir. 1993).) We have reached a bad and dangerous place in American life, and in American university life in particular.

It may well be that anyone who thinks wearing blackface isn’t the worst idea ever has lost touch with reality, for better or worse. But the reaction, the bright line that considers nothing beyond the fact that it happened and demands the death penalty, is social convention**, as decided by drooling lemurs with a heroin problem (to borrow a phrase). This isn’t to say it shouldn’t be, but that the rule is absolute and tolerates neither thought nor argument.

It’s not that Eugene’s position isn’t rational and moderate, even if debatable, but that there’s no talking to the angry mob of “intellectuals” with their tweed jackets and pitchforks.

*One of the weird yet unpleasant situations Elie finds himself in is being that “black friend” to a lot of white lawyers like me. It’s a natural outgrowth of his circumstances; he writes publicly creating at minimum the appearance of knowing him, plus he’s black, which informs his writing. To complicate matters, we’re friends in real life, though I think his wife merely tolerates me. The point is that he has to think about being the “black friend” that whites refer to, the safe, accessible black guy whom white guys can talk to and about. Think about it. Elie has made me think about it quite a bit.

**Social conventions dictate much of what we do yet take for granted, such as men removing their hats indoors, though women need not. Sexist? Sure. Is there some deep reason for it? Not really. Yet, that’s the social convention. And don’t even think about wearing your hat in a courtroom, guys. It won’t turn out well.

23 thoughts on “Crime and Punishment In Blackface

  1. Odder

    “And don’t even think about wearing your hat in a courtroom, guys. It won’t turn out well.”

    Unless you’re Hulk Hogan that is. (A do-rag counts as a hat, right?)

  2. Turk

    Ahh, context.

    Mel Brooks. The Producers.

    While I didn’t care for it, for the same reasons that Ellie says never with respect to blackface, I was apparently in the minority.

  3. delurking

    How old is this lawprof?

    Apropos of this story, I remember a recent news article about a young teacher at an elementary school in Texas. For some in-class thing, the class split into teams, and they had to make up names for the teams. One of the names ended up sounding a heck of a lot like the J-word, though it was spelled differently than the actual slur. One of the parents of one of the kids found out, and complained to the administration, school board, etc. The story said the teacher was very apologetic, and broke down in tears, and that she didn’t know the J-word. The principal accepted this explanation, but the parents absolutely did not; the father was particularly outraged and felt that it was simply not possible that this young teacher did not know the J-word and that she must be prejudiced against African-Americans.

    I am quite certain my children have never heard the J-word, and I think it is very likely they have never heard the N-word either. I’m not sure how to prevent this sort of problem in the future. People aren’t allowed to talk about such things calmly anymore, there must only be outrage.

    1. SHG Post author

      The J-word? It took me a while to figure out what word you were talking about. But then, I’m just a dumb old kike of the Lenny Bruce School of Language Arts.

    2. Dragoness Eclectic

      Do even in-your-face racists (the KKK and Aryan Nation types) even use the “J-word” any more? (If it’s the one I think it is). Can a phrase so archaic it’s extinct as an insult be considered offensive?

      1. delurking

        The answer to your last question is obviously no for a sufficiently-long period of time.
        The more interesting question arises when the slur is only somewhat old, as the Texas story demonstrated. It likely loses its offensiveness at different rates in different places, so younger people are less likely to be aware of it. The J-word is pretty far along the path to inoffensiveness. Blackface has just started on the path, I would guess, given the Oregon lawprof’s decision and Eugene Volokh’s post.

        Interestingly, the last time I read an Elie Mystal tirade against blackface, he was criticizing some college students in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t obvious to me that late-teen Brits would have any clue about the history of 19th century American minstrelsy.

    3. Rick

      I was standing at the counter of an auto parts store several years ago and casually picked up a can from a display. At first I assumed it was a joke until I saw that there were at least 12 cans of Jig-a-Loo lubricant in the display. I asked the 30ish clerk if it was a joke. He looked puzzled and obviously had no idea why I’d asked the question. Time moves on and last years insult is this years cutting edge lube.

      1. delurking

        Right. My daughter came home singing gigolo over and over. As in “gig – o -lo o , gig gig o lo o”.
        I asked “What the hell are you singing? Where did you learn that?” Well, apparently it’s the hot new thing. Google Jig a low and you’ll find lots of kids singing it.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    Now some tiny part of me wants to wear blackface, just to provide a bad example and help Elie spread his PSA farther and wider.

    But I’m lazy and that would probably be exhausting. Also, I’d probably break out, and I’m too old for zits.

  5. Grum

    It’s all good. You can’t have people getting away with the likes of this again (apologies for the link; feel free to can this one as you please)

  6. Keith

    I’ve found that how you deal with such things depends on your worldview and just how much crap you want to tolerate for principles and solid reasoning. My first grader came home with a new word she learned on the school bus a couple weeks back. She proudly told my wife: “I learned the F word, today!”

    My wife left it up to me to tell her why it’s a “bad word”.

    Well kid, the lesson is this: people hate things. They aren’t rational about it and sometimes they just go with their gut. What they hate will change and there’s no rhyme or reason at times. There’s no such thing as a “bad word” and anyone that says so is trying to con you into feeling the same things they feel. That being said, you will get bad attention if you use the word, so be careful out there.

    So far, she’s the only kids on the bus that hasn’t been throwing f-bombs everywhere. Maybe acting in a rational way has some benefit.

  7. KP

    If this is a big deal in the USA then the country is in more trouble than I thought..

    The free-market capialism that built the economy is gone, the economy is destroyed, the debt unsustainable, living standards falling, the wars you are fighting are all being lost and obviously the free speech that the country was a world leader for is gone.

    I can see all that but I’ve never heard of a “J-word”…

    1. Frank

      What? You never saw Police Academy? The J-word was the word that caused Hightower to flip the squad car.

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