The Internet recently went alight with the news that the media personality Julianne Hough went to a Halloween party in blackface this weekend. Ostensibly, she was dressed up as the character “Crazy Eyes,” from Orange Is the New Black. In reality, she simply put what appears to be a shipping container’s worth of bronzer on her face. There were some hair stylings best left undiscussed. It was unquestionably, unqualifiedly racist, as many of my favorite writers — I’ll point you to Roxane Gay and Rembert Browne, for starters — have explained. Not that people will listen.
I mean, look, we’re coming up on a century since blackface was an “acceptable” practice in vaudeville — setting aside who and what made it acceptable — and yet here we still are. Gawker, ever enterprising, promptly found other examples of people dressed like racist fools. They aren’t hard to find, once you start looking: fashion people in Milan, idiot residents of Massachusetts in Trayvon Martin outfits. The history of the thing may vary slightly by geography — try talking to the Dutch sometime about the blackface “tradition” they still engage in around the 6th of December and enjoy banging your head against that brick wall — but the essence of it is always the same. It’s about treating something as integral to someone’s existence as their skin as a kind of costume, to be put on and taken off at leisure. As a cute affectation, available for others to stylize and mock and exoticize. And as something that white people get to “act out.”
That’s, in some sense, the real reason white people cling to this tradition in the face of all reason. In the world generally, white people are “in charge,” in the sense that for the last several hundred years of human history, they’ve been the ones running the governments, writing the history books — Christ, even writing the novels and the television shows. Much of the time they’ve been cribbing, borrowing, and outright stealing from people of color in doing so. But it’s been assumed that white people had a right to do all of these things because, again, they’re “in charge.” Mix this with the thoughtlessness of most people, and in particular most young people, and you get this sort of incident.
There’s some particular irony, I think, in the choice of Crazy Eyes, though. I happened to be involved in a long discussion about Orange Is the New Black when the news about Hough broke, in which much was said was about Crazy Eyes’ character. The tension in the conversation around Orange Is the New Black was between those who saw it as an amazing breakthrough for the humanization of certain kinds of women on television, and those who thought it played too close to stereotypes to deserve full praise. This is thrown into particularly sharp relief with the Crazy Eyes character. For the first several episodes of the show we’re treated to her stereotypically “crazy” behavior. But eventually it becomes clear that Piper was wrong to believe that’s all there was to Suzanne. In fact, the appearance deceived, as it so often does.
The deep irony of this whole situation is that Hough seemed to have either entirely missed that message or gone to some kind of self-deluding “we are all Crazy Eyes” post-racial place to be comfortable with appearing in public that way. But then, nobody ever said nondescript celebrities of her particular vintage were all that “smart.”