Blackface in the Me Too Era

he intersectionality of marginalization.

April 16, 2019

I watched in disbelief as the recent controversy unfolded regarding the Governor of Virginia’s medical school yearbook page that contained photographs of a person in blackface, with others dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan. My first inclination was to question when it occurred. Surely no one who was a contemporary of mine, and a medical student no less, would allow themselves to be photographed in blackface or a klan uniform. Although symbolic racism is pervasive, old fashioned, overt racist acts are not generally socially acceptable today. Then, I discovered the yearbook was published in 1984 and was stunned.

As someone who attended college in the 1980’s and was involved in student government, I could not imagine these images ending up in a yearbook or even happening on our predominately white campus in the south. Then, as I thought more about it, I realized people like me, a woman of color, would probably not have been privy to these racist rituals if they had occurred, since they were likely to take place in all white and/or all male spaces like fraternities. Honestly, for most of my life I have avoided giving much thought to blackface and other stereotypical folk art depicting African-Americans, due to the strong feelings of disgust, anger and confusion they provoke in me. But this controversy forced me to take a deeper look at the significance of blackface and related activities. 

I discovered that minstrelsy, the origins of blackface, was a popular form of entertainment that had its heyday in the 1800’s prior to the civil war. It was performed across the country, in both the north and the south, in settings that ranged from opera houses to street corners. In fact its first popular performer, Thomas D. Rice, grew up in New York. He created the character Jim Crow, which eventually became the moniker for the set of laws and practices enforcing racial segregation in the southern U.S. It is hard to believe but some curious, possibly well-meaning folks saw these performances as an opportunity to experience authentic slave culture.

In depicting blacks as lazy, shiftless, stupid, jaunty and animalistic, blackface performances essentialized the negative stereotypes associated with Africans brought to United States as slaves. It served as the foundation of a certain collective cultural consciousness that fuels implicit bias to this day, not just in terms of race, but also gender. It helped to spread and normalize the controlling images of the black sexless mammy, the mixed race sexually promiscuous jezebel, and the chaste white woman as the standard of true womanhood who was placed on an impossibly high pedestal.

These gender stereotypes simultaneously made women morally responsible for the sex of heterosexual couples while also supporting a narrative that blamed victims of  sexual assault, particularly women of color. This created circumstances that made the #MeToo movement inevitable. A depressing example of all of this can be found in the movie Birth of a Nation that was wildly popular at the time of its release in 1915. Not only does it contain actors in blackface and a storyline glorifying the Klan, but it also portrays farcical stereotypes of women and biracial people.  

So, blackface is definitely not a joke or harmless fun.  It is a recurring representation of the historical trauma that maintains and perpetuates the stereotypes we hold about race. It is a source of the unconscious bias that impacts our judgements about each other in ways that contribute to current injustice and strife. It is the basis for the marginalization people experience related to the color of their skin. It also contributes to the gender bias that has made women the targets of much of the sexual misconduct the #MeToo Movement rails against. The messages associated with blackface are another example of the impact of intersectionality on the experiences of women of color. Blackface represents the very roots of racism in this country. 

This examination of blackface has reminded me of how important it is for those of us who are educators to counter these negative controlling images and stereotypes. We do this most effectively after we have examined the implicit associations that underlie our own bias. By putting a contemporary lens on an abhorrent practice with roots in our pre-civil war past, I have come to better understand the origins of two types of marginalization that diminish us all. 


Dr. Kimberly Barrett currently serves as Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and Associate Dean of the Faculty at Lawrence University. She has held various administrative positions ranging from Vice President for Student Affairs to coordinator of a graduate program during her almost 30 years in higher education. Dr. Barrett holds graduate degrees in clinical psychology and higher education.



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