Opinion

EDITORIAL | Blackface is offensive in every context

Wearing blackface is offensive to any reasonable person.

When the person wearing the blackface is a political candidate, the act is doubly offensive.

When the candidate is oblivious to the fact that blackface is offensive — well that’s just ignorance beyond imagination.

David Sponheim, a candidate for state representative, says his video depicting President Barack Obama in blackface wasn’t intended to be offensive. Rather, he defends the performance as a “satire,” a means of getting attention and getting his political message across.

The context of blackface in American history needs to be acknowledged and examined to understand why it’s so vile.

Blackface performances are deeply rooted in bigotry. In 19th Century America, the image of blacks in the minds of white people was formed by minstrel shows built on mockery and stereotypes. It led to a deeply-imbedded perception that blacks were inferior and foolish to the point of being comical.

It portrayed blacks as almost inhuman.

The term Jim Crow stems from the 1830s when a white minstrel show performer named Thomas “Daddy” Rice blackened his face with burnt cork and danced a jig while performing the song, “Jump Jim Crow,” according to the website

www.black-face.com

In 1834, George Dixon portrayed a character named “Zip Coon” who mocked free blacks. Dixon, behaving in an arrogant, ostentatious manner, dressed in high style, but spoke in malaprops and puns intended to make the character a laughing stock. From Jim Crow and Zip Coon, a particularly offensive slur, “coon,” emerged, according to black-face.com

In the early years of blackface, performers would exaggerate their lips with red makeup. Minstrel shows featured jokes, songs, dances and skits based on the ugliest stereotypes about blacks imaginable. From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were reportedly the most popular form of entertainment in America.

Fortunately, blackface is no longer a socially acceptable form of entertainment. Spoheim’s video didn’t just portray Obama in blackface, he employed over-the-top speech patterns and exaggerated facial expressions reminiscent of blackface performances preserved in movies and in 1950s television shows such as Amos and Andy.

The Island County Democrats wisely denounced Sponheim’s video. State Rep. Dave Hayes, whom Sponheim wants to unseat, said Tuesday he hadn’t seen the video and felt it wasn’t appropriate to comment.

Denouncing Sponheim’s blackface performance isn’t about political correctness as some are wont to argue. Rather, it’s about racial sensitivity, and understanding and appreciating that the roots of blackface are remnants of a time of great racial inequality.

Sadly, when it appears we’ve come far as a society in erasing bigotry, something happens that reminds us all that we as a society still have a ways to go.

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