Blackface and Halloween: A love story

DAN ORZECHOWSKI

News Editor

 

America has a long history with blackface, and come Halloween time, we’re all reminded that it’s still around.

Blackface, the theatrical makeup used by non-black people to represent a person of color, has lingered in our Halloween traditions. Pumpkins are carved, candy is dished out and racism (whether it’s intentional or not) presents itself door-to-door.

Starting in the 19th century, minstrel shows would feature white actors mocking African Americans while masking their faces with shoe polish and greasepaint. Similar practices were used to portray Native Americans and people of Asian descent.

Although its popularity shriveled after the civil rights movement, blackface can still be found in modern pop culture. Laurence Olivier’s “Othello” and Walter Lang’s “The King and I” are just a couple big titles that rely on blackface.

Over Halloween weekend, blackface made appearances in Fredonia.

At an off-campus party, first-year student Ashley Tollner and her boyfriend quickly found themselves to be the topic of discussion. Tollner’s boyfriend was wearing black paint on his face as part of his Halloween costume. A Snapchat picture of Tollner and her boyfriend with a caption reading, “Happy Halloweekend Fredonia” spread like wildfire on social media.

The following Monday, SUNY Fredonia President Virginia Horvath sent an email to the campus community addressing the concern. “The student who posted the picture has been counseled, as have those who have been described as harassing her,” said Horvath. “She has offered a public apology on behalf of herself and her boyfriend.”

Tollner and her boyfriend apologized and said they didn’t mean to offend anyone. “My boyfriend and I are sincerely sorry that we were not educated on what blackface was,” said Tollner. “He had no idea that painting his face black to a Halloween party was racist. No one believes me, but it’s true. Neither of us would ever be racist or hurt a person like that . . . we are both some of the nicest people you could ever meet.”

The posted Snapchat quickly found its way onto people’s newsfeeds, which ignited criticism. Tollner said that she’s received “many death threats,” and that she’s “constantly being harassed for something [she] didn’t even mean to do.”

After addressing the act in her email, Horvath went on to say that, “shaming and harassing also have no place [in] our campus community. We need to continue to work together to ensure that everyone is treated well here.”

A few days later, another blackface costume was spotted in Fredonia.

During the night of Halloween, a woman was seen wearing a costume portraying a Rastafarian man in BJ’s. Senior public relations major Dan McCormick, who happened to be in the bar, said that as soon as he went inside, he could tell something was up. “A lot of people just looked uncomfortable and upset,” he said.

Tyler Desiderio, a senior video productions major, was also there. He saw the same woman and was taken aback. “I had to do at least a quadruple take because it baffled me that someone would do this, especially after the incident from Saturday,” said Desiderio. Eventually Desiderio and his friend approached the woman and told her that her costume was racist.

“How is this racist?” asked the woman according to Desiderio. “Do I look like a Rastafarian guy to you? This is a costume. My 17-year-old niece did the makeup.”

According to Desiderio, a black couple also approached the woman but soon left the bar once they realized the woman wasn’t understanding why her costume was offensive.

The woman was eventually escorted out of BJ’s by a bouncer who, according to Desiderio, told him that he wasn’t “helping the situation” because he “didn’t stop saying things to her.”

Once the woman was escorted out, “everything went back to normal, and people were having a good time,” said McCormick.

When Desiderio came back from a break outside of the bar, he was welcomed with his friends congratulating him. “It felt good, but at the same time, really weird,” he said. “I don’t think I completely deserved it. I just think people should try and do the same. Don’t just stand around. Fight against things you know are wrong.”

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