Halloween Blackface

960Alex and I were obsessed with Eddie Murphy that year. We’d watched Delirious (1983) and Raw (1987) dozens of times over the summer and knew every joke by heart. I was dressing up as Eddie Murphy for Halloween. Of that I was sure. The only question was whether I’d go with the red leather Delirious outfit or the purple leather Raw outfit. Thank God my mom talked me out of it! It was 1988, I was thirteen, and my intentions were entirely innocent: I wanted to be Eddie Murphy the way other kids wanted to be Superman. But, in her infinite wisdom, my mom explained why that didn’t matter. “White guys dressing up like black guys to be funny: that’s got a history, John.” Why, in 2016, are we still dealing with this? Why, in 2016, does my old friend Lateef have to tell a grown woman in blackface at Comic-Con: “Um, lady, that shit’s got a history.”

“You’re like a peanut-butter allergy with a pulse!” That’s what the frustrated interlocutor said, to a Facebook friend of mine, who takes this whole cultural appropriation thing way too far. “Why fret about relatively minor things like cultural appropriation when most of the reserves don’t have clean drinking water? When young black men walking around after dark are guilty until proven innocent?” Although I’m often sympathetic to this line of argument, I can’t help but notice how utterly ahistorical it is. Has there ever been a racist society that conceded big time on a bunch of symbolic stuff whilst going with the status quo on the big issues? I haven’t been able to find one; and I’ve been looking, for quite some time. Seems to me like the big stuff and the little stuff change at more or less the same pace. And that would seem to indicate that this is a false choice, that you can sweat the small stuff and, at one and the same time, work towards changing the big stuff.

Look, I’ll readily concede that there are oversensitive outrage junkies in this world, and we need not be held hostage to their silliness. But I think those folks are actually quite rare. Way more common is the kinda guy who waltzes into a synagogue eating a ham sandwich and then wonders why everyone’s giving him dirty looks. Way more common is the kinda white chick who waltzes into John Abbott College on Halloween dressed up like Pocahontas and then wonders why all of my native students are giving her dirty looks. Finding these changing times confusing? Not sure what’s kosher? Here’s a handy heuristic, something that’ll help you chart a course through these troubled waters: If you can avoid being a dick, avoid being a dick.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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