Why people find a seemingly innocent act offensive
When I first looked at the picture of “blackface”, my first feeling was that of shock and repulsion. I saw two ignorant white girls mimicking people who were not on the same social level as them, people who are destined to clean for a living being made fun of by girls who are in college, the first step to better opportunities.
The position of the fun poker in relation to the poked is key to understanding the outrage felt and expressed by many. When someone perceived as being in a position of power caricatures someone perceived as beneath them, it immediately becomes offensive. This mimicking of the have nots by the haves, the perception of condescending mimicry is what inflamed anyone who has ever been negatively discriminated against or bullied.
While the dress up may have been for fun and with no harm intended, it points at the deeply rooted stereotypes that are still intensely embedded in out psyches. Reading the (mostly white) comments on various forums, it is clear that these whites do not understand why this could be hurtful to a black person. They want black people to laugh and get over it completely missing the fact that the reason for the outrage amongst black people is that it only cements what many non-white people think already. That whites truly believe they are better than non-whites. That whites are condescending. That anything not according to white standards is to be looked down upon, caricatured and be laughed at.
Black face was not about emulating someone else’s culture with respect. It was not about looking up to another culture and trying to imitate it because it is perceived as a standard of beauty (i.e. the use of weaves and blonde hair and skin lightening products). No, blackface was about laughing at domestic workers with their big bums and doeks on their heads, it was making fun in a way that you can only do if you do not have any respect for it. Whether intentional or not, it is a mirror to the truth about what many people still believe. These beliefs are so embedded in our very cells, both black and white, that we can’t even see it anymore. No one who has never experienced pervasive discrimination can ever understand the pain that something like that causes.
Yes its been 20 years since democracy. Yes non-whites have more freedoms and opportunities today. But do you tell Jews to forget what happened to them in Nazi Germany more than 50 years ago? Do we expect white obese children who are bullied at school and grow up into white obese adults to laugh at the mimicry of fat people and just get over it? Were black people expected to flip a switch in 1994 and forget about it? Do you really think black people don’t experience discrimination and racism even today just because there are AA and BEE policies? Have we really gelled together as a nation? Is your social group truly mixed? How then are South Africans of all races expected to laugh at something like that?
I am sometimes amazed at the brazen lack of any attempt by certain white people to understand this. I am amazed at the blind ignorance shown on social networking sites by some white people. It is this blatant lack of respect that perpetuates the racial divide. The bottom line is this: As long as poking fun at others is done from a place of equality, there will be no issues. But when laughing at others is done from a deeply embedded belief in one’s own superiority, then the innocent fun is replaced by prejudice.
At the end of the day, it comes down to context and belief. Those young girls are probably just innocently ignorant. The bigger concern is all the educated adults who see no offense in that picture telling blacks to get over racism and grow up.