Utahns' Halloween outfits bring back pain of blackface and racism
A trio of Utah partygoers has disproved a popular notion: Ignorance isn't always bliss.
Sandy native Julianne Hough and two Utah Jazz fans drew widespread ire for their use of bronzer and body paint to depict black people in the past week.
All three say they meant well, but if their costumes evoked the bigoted minstrel shows of our nation's not-so-distant past, does a lack of awareness excuse them?
West Valley City resident Yolanda Stange, who is black, says it's much ado about nothing to her 18-year-old son, but not to her.
"It's kind of like the 'N' word again. For one age group, it's just slang. For another, it cuts like a knife."
On Friday, "Dancing With the Stars" winner Hough wore dark bronzer to portray Crazy Eyes from the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black," before tweeting an apology: "I am a huge fan of the show ... actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way."
Then, Sunday night, the Utah Jazz Twitter account retweeted Tyler Christensen's photo of him as John Stockton, and his body-painted white friend T.J. Smith as Karl Malone. "Can anyone top this Jazz Halloween costume?" the Jazz asked. Minutes later, they deleted the retweet and apologized, saying the photo "may be insensitive."
Christensen and Smith are similarly unsure whether what they did was truly wrong. Smith says they were showered with compliments at Utah State University's Howl bash Saturday. The two 21-year-old Logan residents wanted to pay respect to two childhood heroes, whom Christensen says he idolized "before I was even old enough to dribble a basketball."
Their makeup was not, in the strictest sense, blackface dark cork or shoe polish that was used to mock and belittle African-Americans before the Civil War and for many decades thereafter. But its similarity touches a still-raw nerve for many. University of Utah associate professor Ron Coleman says some people like to believe we're in a post-racial society but that's not reality. "We're not at the point in this country where we can take this stuff casually."
Stange, 43, worked on the set of "Touched by an Angel" in Utah and remembers co-star Della Reese showing her a portfolio that included work in blackface productions.
"We show our ignorance when we don't know the history of something," Stange said. "It's one of those things where someone just doesn't know better. When we know better, we do better."
She appreciates that, for younger generations, race may not be as big of a consideration as it once was, and she sees that as positive. But it's still jarring to attend a U. blackout football game and sit next to unapologetic white fans in full-on blackface. For whatever reason, the state has had its share of these incidents. Last February, white comedian Dave Ackerman wore face paint and asked Brigham Young University students questions about black history. Blackface also once featured prominently in Dixie State's Halloween traditions, according to school yearbook photos.
Smith says he's sorry some people took offense and "there was honestly no disrespect whatsoever meant." Christensen echoes that sentiment, adding that black co-workers told him that while they understood how some people might find the tweeted photo offensive, knowing him as they do, they thought it was "awesome."
Those apologies don't have a lot of value to Coleman.
"I would say that, too, after I've been called out on it," he says. "I don't know the individual and what his intent was, but I do know that the person should have thought this through."
Mask Costumes in Murray hasn't observed any trend in white people seeking body paint in recent years. Owner Laura Bedore said one man this year wanted to be Morgan Freeman as God in "Bruce Almighty," and the man simply saw Freeman as "a character to be admired, an individual to be emulated."
We're long separated from the days of Al Jolson, she says. "I really believe that we're shifting as a human family to where we recognize the differences, but we don't get hung up on it. If you see a costume and you find yourself being offended by it, try to look at the intent of the person."
Hough isn't the first white media personality to chase blackface with a double shot of regret.
Actor Ted Danson, for example, wore traditional blackface in faux imitation of his then-girlfriend, comedian Whoopi Goldberg, in an obscene 1993 New York Friars Club roasting that was panned even after it was revealed that Goldberg wrote his lines.
But other actors haven't been met by the same level of outrage. Somewhat ironically, Jimmy Kimmel often spoofed Malone (as well as Oprah Winfrey) on his former Comedy Central platform "The Man Show." Fred Armisen regularly donned makeup for his impressions of President Barack Obama on "Saturday Night Live," and Robert Downey Jr. drew raves playing a pretentious white method actor who had his skin surgically altered in "Tropic Thunder."
Black comedian Dave Chappelle, scheduled to perform at Abravanel Hall on Wednesday night, caked on whiteface in "The Chappelle Show" as a caricature of a flippant white news anchor.
Artificially darkened skin gave white journalist John Howard Griffin, who used makeup only sparingly, fodder for his seminal civil-rights diary, "Black Like Me" an outsider's look at the life of a black man during 1959 in the Deep South.
Stange contends that aside from the historical connotations, body paint just isn't necessary for party costumes. Why, for instance, didn't Hough wear contacts to cover her blue eyes? What made it so important to change the color of her skin?
"If I dress up as Lucille Ball, do I paint my face white in order to portray that? You can still portray the character without doing blackface."