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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

Rachel Shukert
March 01, 2013
(Facebook via Huffington Post)
(Facebook via Huffington Post)

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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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.