“Completing the Costume”: Why Black People Aren’t Real

Last week, just in time for Halloween parties to begin commencing across the nation, Megyn Kelly stuck her foot in her mouth yet again, this time on the topic of blackface and Halloween costumes. During an [all white] panel discussion on blackface during Halloween, Megyn Kelly made the following (and very damning) statement:

“You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”

Oh boy. Where do we begin?

There have been many talks and discussion since then on what blackface is and why it’s offensive, the racist history behind it and why recent costumes have been slammed for using it. Even Roland Martin appeared on her show afterward to provide some education on the history of blackface.

Blackface, if you didn’t already know, traces back to minstrel shows where white performers used blackface to mock and dehumanize Black people, theatrical and film roles where white people used blackface instead of using actual Black actors, and even Black performers wore it because white audiences simply didn’t want to see a real Black person. They wanted to see a caricature, and nothing more. If you’re interested in learning more about it, I suggest you check out this article or this one from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Aside from the idea that blackface is WRONG, there’s another element I really wanted to address that came to mind when I listened to Megyn Kelly struggle to understand what Roland Martin was saying. She said something very telling: that she didn’t see what was wrong with a person painting their skin a different color “to complete the costume.”

At a glance, this is simple, insignificant, even. Aside from the fact that it’s no excuse, it even makes sense for the briefest moment, until you “unpack” the statement, as history professor Dr. Jerma Jackson often says.

A costume, by definition, is “a set of clothes in a style typical of a particular country or historical period.” As a verb, it doesn’t stray much: “to dress someone in a particular set of clothes.” And then it all makes sense, right? The costume department at a theater or movie set is in charge of clothes, after all. The costume department of your favorite store is full of masks and bodysuits and other things your kids WEAR to become their favorite characters, people, etc. It has absolutely nothing to do with skin color.

(As a side note, I know that people go to extra levels for Halloween that includes a visit to “hair and makeup,” donning wigs and using certain makeup techniques to look scarier or more like their chosen persona. But a costume is a set of clothes. It’s props. Not skin color.)

Skintone is not a costume. But Megyn Kelly (and everyone out there who agrees) thinks that it is. Which means how do they really see Black people, or people of color, in general? Are we really no more than a character, with hair and skin they can put on and pull off once Halloween is over?

When you think about dressing up for Halloween in the technical sense, you would dress like that person, you would get props, you might even mimic their behavior if you’re so inclined to go that far. But to say, “I’m not Diana Ross unless I look Black,” only draws attention to one thing: you see Diana Ross as someone who’s BLACK. Not as Diana Ross. Not as a diva, or a singer, or a woman, or any number of things. You see that she’s Black, and it’s merely an attribute as disposable and insignificant as the gowns she wears or the big hair she rocks. Something that can be changed, taken off, erased at the end of a long night.

Black people aren’t real, they’re colors that you can put on when you feel in the mood.

I know a lot of commentators have spent time arguing over this the past week and giving large lectures on why blackface was and is so bad, but it neglects to address the real issue at hand. Why do people continue to do it? Because they’re racist? Well….that’s subjective. Maybe so. Or maybe it’s a larger, deep-seeded issue that White Americans have to address when it comes to the way they fundamentally view people of color (which is also a form of racism/prejudice/supremacy/etc).

Some people have said that Megyn Kelly should’ve known better and known the history of blackface, but I don’t expect her to. School systems don’t cover it much, if at all, and Caucasian people can make it very far in the world, in many diverse places and the finest colleges, without ever encountering the aspects of American history that pit them against their Black and Brown peers.

I brought up Dr. Jackson earlier because in her class we studied African-American in music and theater. We talked blackface and racism, Jim Crow and the lot in a classroom of about 28 white students, 1 black student (me) and 1 Latino. I watched my peers on multiple occasions simply “not get it.” I listened to them make comments that they didn’t even realize were supremacist views, and every week I sat at my desk wrestling with the unwanted obligation to speak for my race and the inability to voice my opinion at the time. And I knew that when we turned in our final papers and walked out of our final, not much had probably changed in the way they saw me, but everything had changed for me over those 16 weeks.

So yes, Megyn Kelly saying she didn’t know about blackface could be a lie, a stretch of the truth, but I don’t doubt at all that she wasn’t being completely honest. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.

If you’re heading out tonight for Halloween and you still have it in your mind to ruffle some feathers or “complete your costume” with a bit of blackface, as bank executive Bryan Lenertz did this week, just know that it speaks volumes about the way you see people of color. And it’s something Black people have known for years.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” — Ralph Ellison

Writer | Multimedia Artist

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