Blackface is a racist gesture that involves someone painting their face black, typically to enact racist stereotypes about African Americans. It harkens back to when white minstrels would rub burnt cork on their faces and play stereotypes of enslaved African Americans. The belief that people of colour were intellectually, emotionally, physically and generally inferior was bolstered through the creation of African American caricatures that were played out for the entertainment of white people. These were created in the 1800s, but the same racist ideology is still common today.
These stereotypes were created by white people to demean and discredit black folks, especially those who were enslaved but gained their freedom. The characteristics of the various stereotypes, ie childish, violent, subservient etc, became etched in the common white understanding of black folks that they remain a driving force in modern racist tropes.
Jim Crow – A blackface character made famous by white ministral Thomas “Daddy” Rice in the 1830s. The portrayal became so popular that local segregation laws in the United States from 1876 to 1965 were nicknamed Jim Crow laws.
Mammy – A blackface mother first created by Disney. She supposedly represents everything earthy wisdom and hard labour. She is often portrayed as a domestic or a servant, middle aged, overweight and loud. She was created as a non-sexual being, so as to reaffirm the white family structure. She can still be found on boxes of pancakes everywhere.
Uncle Tom – The main character in the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he became an epithet for any person of colour acting excessively subservient to a white person. The term Uncle Tomming is now given to people who belong to an oppressed group but participate actively to maintaining their oppression.
Buck – An archetype that represents the perceived dangers by white supremacists of black male sexuality, Buck is often depicted as an overly muscular man who is proud and interested solely in white women.
Pickaninny – A caricature of a black child with large lips, bulging eyes and immunity to pain. They were used as the recipients of violence in racist cartoons and characterized all African Americans as children. Many children of people who were enslaved in the United States were also referred to as pickaninnies.
Blackface characters have been used in every medium. On the radio, white actors played two bumbling African Americans on Amos and Andy in the 1930s. Cartoons routinely showed blackface characters as the butt of jokes and live action white actors donned blackface on the silver screen. The disgustingly resilient racist practice of blackface has a history of hundreds of years.
Blackface is extremely racist because of its history alongside slavery as well as its impact on present day systemic racism. Despite this, it remains a common in Canadian culture. Blackface is still used as a Halloween costume, in music videos and ads, like the American Apparel ad shown above.