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Two-Faced Blackface

One of the outrages of a Brooklyn assemblyman’s notorious choice of Purim costumes is its effect on anti-Semitism

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There’s been so much on the Twitterwebiverse this week, both real and manufactured—Seth MacFarlane’s boob jokes! the anti-Semitic Teddy bear! Anne Hathaway’s continued insistence that she has as much right to walk this Earth as any human being who is less talented and pretty!—that I almost can’t handle Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s ridiculous blackface Purim costume of no known living “basketball player” in no recognizable uniform.

Almost, but not quite. And I’ll tell you why: In a time when a huge swath of the population—myself included—spends enormous chunks of time parsing various acts of unwitting and unintentional racism, sexism, ageism, sizeism, and any other vague adjective you can attach an “ism” to and wag a finger at, it’s important to break through the wall of what Lindy West at Jezebel smartly terms “outrage fatigue” and point out when things are genuinely, inexcusably offensive. Hikind’s choice of costume was.

But first we have to talk about the construct of blackface itself. Is it always, unquestionably, no-exceptions-applied unacceptable, like the casual (read: not artistic/historically accurate) use of the N-word, or calling a 9-year-old girl something that rhymes with Alfred Lunt? (For the record, I’m actually not a proponent of a blanket C U Next Tuesday ban, as to me it has always seemed to smack of internalized female shame to decide it’s so much more insulting to be called a vagina than a penis. But to call a little girl that? Never OK, no matter what the context. But we should get back to the other thing, before I get into trouble.)

Let’s begin by breaking down the different types of this phenomenon—the not-quite-50 Shades of Blackface, if you will. First, there’s the classic variety, originally used primarily by African-American performers in so-called “minstrel acts” before it was brought comfortably into the mainstream by white and often Jewish vaudeville performers like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, whose memorably outstretched Mammy-yearning arms Hikind (and I’m being charitable) might have imagined offered a kashering embrace.

Were their stage acts racist? Sure, but so were their audiences and the times that produced them, which is why blackface today is such a useful telegraphic tool about a character’s retrogressive viewpoints—see Roger Sterling’s notorious rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” in the Mad Men episode of the same title. By contrast, the otherwise politically conservative Jolson was generally known to be years ahead of his time in racial matters, demanding equal treatment from the studios for artists like Cab Calloway and Eubie Blake, and—virtually unheard of for his time—pursuing relationships beyond cordial toleration with his African-American colleagues. “You didn’t associate too much socially with any of the stars,” Jeni LeGon, a black female tap dance star, remembered later. “You saw them at the studio—you know, nice, but they didn’t invite. The only ones that ever invited us over were Al Jolson and (then wife) Ruby Keeler.”

Then there’s incidental blackface, i.e., Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart: understandably infuriating—particularly for actresses of color—but not ill-intentioned. There is also satirical blackface—Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, or Eddie Murphy in Coming to Americawhere the ironic humor trumps most (if not all) of the offense.

And then there’s racist costuming of the utterly obliviously racist costuming, which reached its dizzying public apex not with an actual instance of the old blackened cork routine but one likely to push similar buttons among this magazine’s readership: Tattler favorite Prince Harry’s infamous Nazi costume at that “Colonial and Native” theme party some years back. Discounting the idea that Harry is an actually rabid white supremacist (or even knows what that is), it was always an odd choice; you wouldn’t think someone whose family has traditionally had a pretty big stake in the idea of empire would choose to present the idea of a “colonist” in such an unflattering light. Rather, I always assumed that Harry just thought it would be hilarious to dress up like a Nazi, and there was no one in the rarified social circles in which he moves who grew up hearing tales of unbearable tragedy, or listening to a grandparent’s screaming night terrors, or shuddering every time they saw a swastika spray-painted onto a parking garage or carved into the cracking vinyl of a bus seat, to tell him that this may not be the case.

It’s possible that this was simply also what happened with Dov Hikind; he thought of what he considered a funny costume and couldn’t imagine that anyone he planned to spend Purim with would object (which is a troublesome fact in and of itself). But then you remember that Hikind is 62 years old (Prince Harry was a blushing 21); Hikind is an elected official representing a major assembly district that has been the site of considerable racial tension and occasional riots throughout his tenure; Hikind, when asked about the possibly inflammatory nature of his outfit, made a whole lot of jokes about “rethinking his Indian costume” or possibly “going dressed as a gay person next year” until he got around to issuing a remotely acceptable—and thoroughly unconvincing apology.

If this isn’t all offensive enough, as has been noted here and elsewhere, Dov Hikind was also the loudest voice in the idiot chorus condemning disgraced fashion designer John Galliano (another Tattler fave!) for stepping out during Fashion week in what looked like Hasidic haute couture asking rhetorically, “Are you mocking us?” and suggesting that Galliano be taught a thing or two about the Holocaust.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle trayf. I’m not calling Hikind a bigot—I have no reason to think he wishes harm to anyone. But prejudice isn’t necessarily equal to hate. Rather, prejudice is primarily a question of entitlement—a belief that one’s own group is worthy of treatment it would deny others. For Hikind, and far too many like him, anti-Semitism is the only real racism; everything else is just a bunch of malcontents who can’t take a joke. And that’s an outrage indeed.

***

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marjorie ingall says:

The Galliano parallel wasn’t in The Daily Show piece; it was on SorryWatch!

Max Kraum says:

I normally enjoy reading articles from tablet magazine, but after the first two paragraphs, all I could offer this piece of “work” is a less than thoroughly skim to them end.

What actress of color really could have played Mariane Pearl? Shouldn’t only Asian/Hispanic/Chinese/Jewish hybrid folks be upset about Jolie’s portrayal? Calling that even “incidental blackface” seems like a stretch.

david says:

“originally used primarily by African-American performers”

???

Where are you getting this? It’s not even a good reading of the linked Wikipedia article.

Classic American blackface was performed primarily by white actors, though a handful of minstrel troupes in the 1840s featured African American performers.

Hikind is an insensitive lout…but then, look at his constituency.

altershmalter says:

As long as Hikind kisses the posteriors of his right wing constituents, he can do anything he pleases and will continue to be elected. Never mind that his insensitivity can clearly be defined as racist and bigoted – same terms eminating from his own lips when he chides anti-semitic behavior. Prior to this public display, he was just another pathetic panderer; now he has front-and-center made all of us traditional Jews look to be just like him in the eyes of the offended…the proverbial pot calling the kettle black (no pun intended)! Shame on him!

What riots were in Hikind’s district? What racial tension? Are you confusing Midwood/Boro Park with Crown Heights?

On the contrary, I think the lack of conflict in Hikind’s rather homogeneous district (and the lack of dialogue that follows such a conflict) explains Hikind’s clueless attitude. And let’s face it, if there ever were a racial conflict that caused a crisis in his district, it would be far beyond Dov Hikind to handle it. He would never have outlasted it as a politician.

The parallel between Prince Harry and Hikind is better than you’re making it out to be. And look, Hikind’s son – despite being younger – appears to be an ignoramus in his father’s image.

disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8 says:

This is crap. We model on cultural icons for Hallowe’en, and have gradually been moving from religious to cultural heroes on Purim. Sports stars are the ultimate heroes. Anyone costuming as a sports star is PRAISING that hero, embracing his accomplishment. Why is such an action racist? Because it requires blackface to complete the gesture of adulation? If someone cites Maimonides & he isn’t Jewish, is that antisemitism, using a Jewish reference while not being Jewish? This fabricated issue is a horrific example of what is wrong with liberal perceptions in the modern West. It’s okay to worship jocks – and I would dispute that, but this is the reality – but you can only costume yourself as a jock of your own race? This is irrational, and the notion itself that adulation of a black by costume is racist is not only wrong – it is actually itself racist, and more way more racist than anyone who admires a sports hero & chooses to costume as one. You liberals are NUTS. And I regret to say that all my life I thought I was a liberal. But I also thought I was rational & reasonable, so apparently I am not a liberal.

Queen Deleona says:

I would like to first correct the author of this article by saying that black-face and the minstrel show actually starts with White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the South. Blacks picked up on it as a form of theater and theatrical employment. The many stories of the agonies of Blacks doing “black-face” are legend. The greatest of “black-face” performers are and have always been whites. Even the famous “Amos ‘n’ Andy” of radio were whites. When it came to film, they had to find Blacks to play those parts. Without question “black-face” has continued but without the make-up and we just call it being “Hip Hop”, gansta, contemporary urban or being “ethnic”. I suggest a look at Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” or Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” for a fuller understanding? With that said, there’s no reason or rhyme that makes whites doing “black-face” tolerable or even humorous, in most cases. I have no stats to refer to but “black-face” in the 21st century is always a racist statement. Why??? Because it was racist in it’s very creation and it continues to be a sign of a racist whenever seen. If you walk into a shiksa’s home and see pics of Hitler, swastikas, and other such memorabilia, you do not merely assume that they are just a conservative who collects WWII stuff and sit down for tea!?! lol European Jews and gentiles need to sensitize or re-sensitize themselves to the fact that there needs to be a greater understanding about such matters. Remember the death camps also killed Blacks… We all need to stop this insanity?!?

Queen Deleona says:

I’m not a liberal, whatever that means these days, either. It was hardly a positive image of a black person whether it’s sports or not. Hero worship requires a specific hero and there was no such thing. It was not even the appearance of how many of today’s American professional basketball players appear ethnically nor how they even dress on the court? Maybe he should’ve stayed in a safer zone of depicting someone that is actually connected to the Purim story, which would’ve been a more positive and timely message for a political person of any leanings?!? All he showed is that insensitivity or even racist inclinations aren’t limited to any particular group… IJS

davidallyn says:

It is wrong and anachronistic to impute racist motives to Al Jolson’s use of black-face in “The Jazz Singer”. Minstrel shows were not looked upon by the public at the time as a derogation of black people. They were in their day and in their way a sort of back-handed recognition by an otherwise racist society of the talents of black performers which whites tried to emulate, however cruelly ironic that may have been. And Jolson was portraying a young Jewish immigrant who desperately wanted to enter the mainstream of American society by becoming a Jazz singer – which in the context of the time and the film meant doing the vaudeville routine. From a dramatic point of view these were the “existing circumstances” of the script, not a reflection of Jolson’s prejudices. I have known many people who saw his performance at the time who said there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That is to say, his performance was eminently human and respectful, not an act of ridicule or abuse. Don’t let your contemporary fashionable indignation blind you to the meaning as it existed in context. If you really want something to chew on, consider this: The Jazz Singer conveyed to a whole generation of immigrant Jewish youth the notion that to be an “American” meant throwing off their antiquated “Jewish ways” and becoming a vaudevillian in black-face! That sounds more anti-Semitic than racist (in the anti-Black sense of the word). As for the present, Cong. Hikind’s actions were idiotic!

andrewsu says:

Hikind takes anti-semitism seriously but is kind of insensitive towards blacks. With the exception of Martin Luther King Jr I can’t think of one “black civil rights leader” who isn’t mindboggling senstive about anti-black racism but is an apologist or promoter of black anti-semitism and anti-Asian racism. Saying that Hikind’s costume has an effect on anti-semitism is offensive. Would you say that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton,Marion Barry and Jermiah Wright cause racism towards blacks because of their anti-Jewish and anti-Asian speech?

andrewsu says:

And remember Yankel Rosenbaum, Antoni Grazzoni and the other victims of the Crown Heights pogrom. I don’t remember blacks getting all wet eyed about them like you do about Trayvon. I do not need to sensitize myself to blacks. Blacks have done more to encourage anti-semitism and anti-Asian bigotry then any other group. Nation of Islam, a black anti-Jewish hate group is openly promoted by the NAACP, Jerimiah Wright, Tavis Smiley, Spike Lee, and hundreds of black civil, religious and student groups openly and without consequences. No Ms. Deleona, we don’t need to be more sensitive towards blacks. You need to look at the shameful behavior of blacks towards Jews and Asians that you have gotten a free pass at for the last 50 years. It’s KKK-like and the unwillingness of blacks to acknowledge their wrongdoing during the anti-Asian and anti-Jewish pogroms in the 90′s causes legitimate animosity where there was none previously.

andrewsu says:

Dressing as a basketball player is the same as dressing as HItler?

Faival44 says:

For Chrissake, lighten up — it’s a Purim costume! Do you think all the Vashti & Esther avatars out there are dissing women, or Persians? Why not? And do I care if the Louis Farrakhans, Al Sharptons or Jeremiah Wrights of the world are ‘offended’ by how we choose to celebrate our holiday? Did they ever aplogise for an Easter passion play? I say good for Dov. Every once in a while its OK not to give a damn about what the Goyim think, even if they are black. It’s not like we owe ‘em a damn thing.

I am appalled by how many commenters are completely blind to the deep racial wounding that goes on and on in our country, fueled by an unconscious energy reminiscent of the robots and zombies so prevalent in our current pop culture.

disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8 says:

I had heard in breathless radio reporting that Hikind had specifically represented himself as a particular individual, but since I don’t follow sports, I have no recollection of who that was. More signficantly, I think your premise is wrong. I’m sorry, but we went from Lincoln’s & Washington’s birthday to one day honoring all Presidents. We went from Armistice Day to honoring all war veterans. Of course we went the opposite way on Civil rights day, from honoring everyone who helped improve our social posture to honoring only Dr. Martin Luther King, so perhaps we are only capable of honoring people in general if they are not minority class members? I think that the complex of sensitivity, both by blacks & by Jews, results in wild hypersensitivity. I know that there are certain actions which are obviously racist or antisemitic. But there is a huge trove of behaviors which elicit howls of racism or antisemitism which I believe are more about past prejudicial actions than about the specific incident. This one is a great example of my hypothesis, eliciting rage about 1920′s blackface, as it does. That retrospective invocation of injustice, so long as it persists, can only make us more and more reactive to perceived injustice. Yet real inclusiveness, with all that such an idea means, can only occur when we shed our sensitivities and accept everyone as individuals without any reference to the group or groups into which we presently categorize them.

As an aside, even the author above notes the Eddie Murphy role, and while she still manages to find reason to criticize, she notes that this was part of what acting is about. Costuming is a subset of acting, whether on a holiday or as part of a theatrical representation, or as kids so often do, for just plain sillyness. I believe that this is not so much a representation of insensitivity as it is an example of respect for a particular individual or even a class of individuals conveyed by the actor. I think the insensitivity lies in the hypersensitivity of the critics who cannot move beyond past injustices and just relax and enjoy our improved – but not yet perfect – world. If we are going to linger forever on past failings, we’ll never grow. That in itself becomes a worse injustice than any purported failing alleged here.

hekesq says:

This is one of the most racist comments I have ever read. SHAME.

hekesq says:

Civil Rights Day??? Where did you grow up? If there is one person who was the epitome of civil rights it was Martin Luther King Jr. It was appropriate to honor him with a day. There was no “Civil Rights Day” previous. And getting your “facts” from somewhere on radio, is quite foolish.

Ahhh, Rachel (I actually said Rahhel, with a chet), you said it sooo good. Todah rabbah.

Justsomecasualcomments says:

well said. the political correctness policemen are hysterical.

Natan79 says:

Is it so? Does it bother you that andrewsu mentioned the progroms committed by African Americans in which they MURDERED Jews and Asians? They surely did it. Deal with it. andrewsu pointed the facts, which is very good. Neither nor I need your approval.

Natan79 says:

Exactly, did they ever apologize for a Passion play? You won’t see Marjorie Ingall being bothered by that. No, she’s too busy peddling stories of her children – yet thank God she has them! Otherwise she;d write this kind of stupid and offensive nonsense all the time: “only the JOOOZ are at fault*”.

Natan79 says:

Rachel, once more, you are truly an imbecile. Why don’t you get a job at People, where you really belong?

hekesq says:

Yes it does bother me since it is not true. Please tell me more about these “progroms” (sic) you refer to. ‘ You do not need my approval to be racist, but you get my condemnation, like it or not.

Natan79 says:

hekesq, go to hell your condemnation, in the name of Yankel Rosenbaum, MURDERED in the Crown Heights POGROM on 1991 and in the name of the seven workers MURDERED in 1995 in the Harlem POGROM of 1995. Both POGROMS were perpetrated by African Americans.

How dare you speak of racism, you evil shit? I don’t need your approval for anything. But I do have a very personal wish for you, since you deny murder and POGROMS: may you personally die as Yankel Rosenbaum did, in a POGROM.

Natan79 says:

Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Marion Barry and Jermiah Wright are liked BECAUSE they hate Jews. Hikind didn’t incite to murder. Al Shapton did. But you won’t see the ghetto Jews of Tablet condemning these bastards with blood on their hands.

No. They are similar in the respect that they don’t get exposed to points of view that challenge their prejudices or privilege.

hekesq says:

Very nice. I thank you for your personal request on how I should die. I will keep that in mind. The use of the word pogrom to describe that horrible incident involving Yankel Rosenbaum is inaccurate. Michael Stanislawski, Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, wrote in 1992 that it was “historically inaccurate” to couple “pogrom” with Crown Heights, because the word denoted organized violence against Jews “having some sort of governmental involvement.” Journalists also disagreed with the use of the term, including Joyce Purnick in the New York Times, Earl Caldwell in the New York daily News, and an article in The City Sun. Al Sharpton said that Giuliani was engaged in “race-baiting” by using the word “pogrom.” Henry Siegaman and Marc D. Stern of the American Jewish Congress also publicly rejected the term。(This from Wikipedia). Not every time a Jew is killed it is a pogrom. Honetly I do not know what you are talking about regarding Harlem. But your trying to link all blacks together as if they are some secret society out to destroy jews is absurd and yes RACIST. It is no different than the lies told by the Russions in the real pogroms of the 19th century and, of course the Nazis. This is called scapegoating or racial demonization which is a form of racism. You may take offense at the term but that is irrelevant. You are what you are.

the putz politician who managed this chilul hashem is one of the biggest stains on Jewish New York

disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8 says:

But this, of course is not stereotypical nor racist.

disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8 says:

Sorry. You ought to check your facts before mocking me. Civil Rights Day was at one time a Federal Holiday, then became a state holiday at least in some states – my memory is fading. That it was founded on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday I thought was admirable tribute to the man who has come to epitomize the concept, but many thousands of people rallied to this cause, some died for it, and as I said before, all other Federal holidays honoring specific groups or individuals have been altered to be more inclusive. Just this one has gone from honoring all participants to honoring just one. I find that fact discomforting, excluding as it does so many other who contributed so much to see this cause succeed.

hekesq says:

Again. I’ll type slowly so maybe you can understand. There has never been a Federal Civil Rights Day, at least not in the U.S. Never. Never. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was made a federal holiday by Congress. It did not replace a Civil Rights Day. If you have proof to back up your “facts” produce them. As for your original comments, your obvious lack of sensitivity shows a particular callousness that borders on the racist.

disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8 says:

I wish I could be as certain as you are whenever I’m wrong. Check out http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1987/081087d.htm. Ronald Reagan declared a national civil rights day. Truth may seem insensitive to you, and I suppose truth can be presented in an insensitive manner. That is certainly not my intention. But I really can’t stand foolish political correctness masquerading as social propriety. If you would ban someone from dressing as a basketball star on Purim or Halloween, then that same reasoning should bar people from dressing as Esther or Mordechai or Achashveros or Idi Amin or Bob Cousy. Or any other public person. That selective enforcement demonstrates a serious logical flaw, in my estimation. When someone praises someone by costuming as that person, it’s NOT racism. It’s HONOR. The better the imitation of that public personality, the greater the honor. To so gravely misconstrue such conduct, to invert reason on this issue, is a logical failure caused by reflexive, politically correct parroting of unstated specious syllogisms.

hekesq says:

First of all, I should be surprised by your lack of intelligence and understanding on this, but I am not. Declaring a National Civil Rights Day by proclamation is not the same as declaring a holiday. There are literally thousands of such proclamations made every year naming things such as “National Turkey Day”, National Apple picking Day”, etc. Tell your boss that you want the day off for National Pie Day” (yes there is such a thing) since, as you claim, that makes it a national holiday. Your lack of insensitivity is not surprising given your racism. I am sure that many African Americans must have felt pride that Dov Hikind dressed as a stereotyped black person. I am being sarcastic. I tell you I am being sarcastic because I do not believe you have the capacity to understand sarcasm.

disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8 says:

Just because you’re wrong, you have no need to get sarcastic. You just admitted that there are declarations such as Reagan’s all the time. This means that when you insisted that “There has never been a Federal Civil Rights Day, at least not in the U.S.”, you have already concurred that such a day has, in fact, occurred though you denied it. Just as has National Pie Day, which you admit to. You noted that it does not require an act of Congress to establish a day honoring a subject, then you try to deny that same process to support your failed argument. Save your sarcasm for someone who needs it. You’re trying to smite my purported pigeon-brain, but you seem to be having trouble hitting it. It’s either too small a target for your errant blows, as you seem to believe, or perhaps your intellect is inadequate to support your inept targeting.

Furthermore, I had previously appended that after Reagan, some states had established Civil Rights Days. This, too, was true. I believe – and you’re not worth any more effort, so I’m not going to bother looking this up – but I believe that New Hampshire was the last state to cave and switch from the general holiday honoring all who contributed. changing to the specific holiday honoring only one leader. I’ll concede that MLK was a great leader, but a leader can’t be great without a host of great followers. I believe that conversion of the holiday was just another misguided bow to Political Correct idiocy rather than an honor devoted to praising all of the brave & dedicated individuals, a number of whom (in addition to King) gave their lives in support of this noble cause.

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Two-Faced Blackface

One of the outrages of a Brooklyn assemblyman’s notorious choice of Purim costumes is its effect on anti-Semitism

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