2013-10-28

Blackface

One thing I can't seem to figure out about the all the recent reports of blackface Halloween "costumes" in the news these days: Are people getting stupider, or are we merely becoming more aware of their stupidity?

There are two major possibilities out there to explain all this.

The first, the explanation that I think the mainstream media endorses, is that blackface Halloween costumes have always been out there. People have been wearing them for years. The problem is society, that society has never really overcome its pervasive racism. Thanks to modern technology - specifically, social media - all these blackface costumes that have always existed out there have now been thrust into the spotlight of media attention. Now, at last, people realize how terrible and pervasive racism is. 

My objection to this explanation is that I have positively never, ever seen or heard about a blackface costume from someone I know personally, or with whom I am acquainted with, ever in my entire life. I didn't grow up in a cosmopolitan area, in fact my hometown used to be an extremely racist place. I went to college, I went to Halloween parties, I've been around. My point is that I've never even heard of this before. Perhaps I simply don't remember hearing about it, but at any rate the concept is totally foreign to me, so blackface cannot really have been a pervasive problem earlier in my life. I mean, I would have at least encountered in some capacity at some point in my life. But I haven't.

This leads me to the other possible explanation, which I inflammatorily described above as "people are getting stupider." No, I don't really mean that human intelligence has diminished so much that today people can't compute how insulting blackface is. Instead, what I mean is something I was getting at in last Friday's post, which I explained thusly:
Listen: If it happened before, then it can happen again. It's not as if the lessons learned seven generations ago stick with society forever. Every new generation has to learn the previous generations' knowledge, and then a whole new set of lessons. That's what progress is. But we can also forget stuff.
See, I grew up watching very old Loony Toons cartoons on early Saturday mornings. I'm not talking about the classic stuff from the 1950s, I'm not talking about The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show. I'm talking about the stuff that goes back far prior to any of the characters as we know them, back when Loony Toons was nothing more than a bunch of animated shorts that used to air in movie theaters before the feature presentation.

Back then, the cartoon consisted of various spoofs of politicians, entertainers, and other celebrities. A common to see was the caricature of Frank Sinatra, who in his youth was quite scrawny. They'd wheel the Sinatra character out in a wheel chair, because he was so sickly and frail. And then he'd sing a few bars of something and all the female cartoon characters would swoon and faint. Funny, right?

Well, they also used to have a lot of blackface bits. Porky Pig would somehow find himself in the jungle, and the "natives" would come out looking like they're wearing blackface and speaking bad English. When I was very young, I didn't really understand what was going on. So I asked my mother and she explained the concept of minstrel shows to me. I never thought the blackface thing was funny, but once I had some historical perspective, I found it as insulting as most normal people do.

But that was only thanks to the fact that the local TV station had a block of time to fill on Sunday mornings from about 4:00 to 7:00 AM. Had that not been the case, I'd never have experienced the concept of a minstrel show. I'm too young. People younger than me - millennials, generation Y, etc. - never had that exposure. Even people my own age who weren't early birds like me wouldn't have had that exposure.

I'm not excusing blackface, of course. There is never any context in which it is appropriate. It is always insulting.

Instead, what I'm pointing out is that important knowledge - including moral knowledge - can be lost rather quickly. If the younger generations don't experience certain things themselves, and learn from them, then they forget those lessons entirely. This is precisely what I was suggesting last Friday, and I think this recent crop of blackface Halloween costumes is another good demonstration of the point.