We all know what blackface is; the theatrical practice that typically depicted white actors as “black” characters who were stupid, lazy, malevolent, and superstitious. This was extremely prominent in mid 19th century minstrelsy in America and continued up till the 1930s, where it made its way into film. In that time, coupled with slavery, the black codes and the Jim Crow laws, African-Americans found themselves surrounded by their harsh, lampooned representations. After the early 1930s, blackface found its way into animation, which, by the 1940s, morphed into the darkie icon.
The darkie icon was a gag used in various cartoons by many characters we recognize today such as Mickey Mouse, Tom & Jerry, and even Bugs Bunny.
At this point in history, almost all media and entertainment portraying African-Americans cast them in a negative light. These lampooned depictions consistently reinforced negative stereotypes ensuring skewed social perceptions. To me, this leaves no wonder as to how those attributes in blackface shaped modern day stereotypes.
Even today, African-American actors auditioning for roles are often being told to “be more urban,” or “try to be blacker.” And many of those roles are stereotypical tropes like “The Sassy Black Friend/Sidekick,” “The Gangster/Mugger/Criminal,” “The Prisoner,” or “The Rapist.” These stereotyped characters are pumped through television networks and into the minds of the audience, who then begin to believe these radical caricatures exist in real life (according to the cultivation theory at least, which states that people who watch high contents of television will begin to believe that the world they live in is similar to the world that is depicted on screen).
These portrayals hammer in the idea of African-Americans being dangerous, unintelligent, and even beast-like to all its viewers by demeaning a culture and an experience. For individuals in the African-American community, this means a lot of self-hate, self-doubt, dissuasion, and a lack of confidence. There are many who are trying to change this, but one Tumblr user, expect-the-greatest (real name T’von), did it somewhat by accident.
T’von was struck with proposing the idea of #BlackOutDay after feeling his Tumblr feed didn’t show enough black people. “Of course I see a constant amount of Black celebrities but what about the regular people? Where is their shine?” T’von’s idea grabbed the attention of many, including Twitter user Nukirk who thought “…the idea was, like, just a fun thing […] But as I got into it, I sort of realised it also backs up the ideals I talk about: seeing more diversity in our media […] Because even though our culture is curated, they are not our narratives. And this is our chance to use this media to take back the narrative and to diversify it.”
Representation is important to us. In media, representation validates and reaffirms our continued existence by depicting us accurately and decisively. It helps us feel like we matter, and it gives us confidence in existing and progressing. That confidence is just one characteristic of a person, but it could be the “can” or “can’t” of our decisions, the “be” or “don’t be” in our character; it could be the foundation to our entire being. When an entire group isn’t allowed accurate representation in a society, the result is disheartening. Current media relentlessly portrays African-Americans and our culture in a diminishing way that is damaging to everyone, but small steps that turn into big leaps like #BlackOutDay remind us and others that this exaggerated, stereotypical portrayal is not who we are, and we will not allow those pieces of media to represent us anymore.
Ramsey, Franchesca. “The dumb questions actors of color get that white ones don’t deal with.” Upworthy, 2015
Thompson, J., Carew, J. “From Blackface to Blaxploitation: Representations of African-Americans in Film.” Duke University Libraries
Punyanunt-Carter, Narissa M. (2008) “The Perceived Realism of African-Americans on Television.” The Howard Journal of Communications 19:241-257 https://library.uoregon.edu/sites/default/files/data/guides/english/howard_journal_communications.pdf
Barlow, Kimberly K. (2011, November 10) “How Media Portrays African-American Males.” University Times, p.8
Demby, Gene (2013, October 09) “A Comedy Favorite: How The ‘Act Blacker’ Sketch Has Evolved.” NPR, Code Switch
Isaacs, S. T., Horney, J. “Portrayals of African-Americans in Media: An Examination of Law and Order.” The Pennsylvania State University
“T’von (expect-the-greatest), creator of BlackOutDay, speaks his piece.” (2015, March 2) Colorthefuture