On Halloween morning, prior to a day of work and college football, my wife and I traveled to our neighborhood Denny’s for breakfast. A trip to Denny’s is a modest treat, but for two graduate students on a strict budget, we look forward to the simple pleasures that we can enjoy in our free time.
As the hostess walked us to our booth, another patron’s eyes met mine. The absurdly large Afro wig and the smeared black makeup on her face belied her blue eyes and the fair hands that held her fork. It was 10 a.m., and my wife and I, not to mention the other patrons and wait staff, witnessed our first blackface costume of the day.
What conversation my wife and I had been engaged in was lost. What enthusiasm we had for the day was stunted. We sat in silence for a moment. Out of necessity, many people of color have learned to function competently on a day-to-day basis in the face of implicit and explicit racism. Nonetheless, on this occasion and engrossed in the weekend’s leisure, it caught us by surprise.
Our reaction was visceral. We sat there in sadness, anger and fatigue, with a burning sense of our race and its seeming insignificance. We felt scrutinized and shamed while this young woman seemed to be enjoying her morning, oblivious to the shock waves of discomfort and disbelief moving through the restaurant.
After sitting in our booth for a few seconds, my wife stood up. “I’ll be right back,” she said. Retracing her steps two booths, my wife calmly and quietly told this young lady, sitting with an older woman — presumably her mother — that her outfit was offensive. They were surprised but nodded, admitted (feigned?) ignorance that the costume could be perceived as offensive and apologized.
For anyone who has suggested to an individual that he/she is racist or that what he/she is doing is racist, you know it rarely goes well. This response was surprisingly less explosive than either my wife or I anticipated, but her outfit and response revealed a whole host of other dynamics at work. Would it have been more hurtful if she was trying to be explicitly offensive? Or is it more remarkable that she claimed to not know that some people might see her as an embodiment of historical and contemporary oppression? What makes it okay to wear a black person as a costume?
Blackface isn’t a post-racial example of how people blur the lines of racial constructions. It is a racist practice. The same is true for the head feathers and war paint of the “Native” costume, the “cholo” uniform and many other outfits that, as Felix Lopez articulated in Thursday’s issue of The Michigan Daily, become, unsurprisingly, prevalent on Oct. 31 of each year (Halloween unmasked, 10/30/2009).
I am confident that this instance of blackface was not the only one in Ann Arbor this past weekend. Ignorance does not excuse racism, and racism is alive and well in our university town. If you deny this is true, don’t be offended if I tell you that you are wrong.
Matthew Blanton is a graduate student.