Is Megyn Kelly racist
Accusation: racism! - If you think of blackface when you think of red lips, you look at the world with the clansman's gaze
Big eyes, red mouth: The latest blackface cases raise the question of where racism is still racism - and at what point rational concerns about inappropriate gestures lead to paranoia.
The scandal was perfect. In the fall of last year, the American presenter Megyn Kelly was suspended from her program "Megyn Kelly Today". She had expressed incomprehension about the lack of tolerance towards blackface Halloween costumes. In her childhood, she said, that was completely unproblematic. Then things suddenly happened very quickly: in the New York Prada store, small monkey-like males with huge red mouths and large goggle eyes, inflated into black balloons, had to be removed from the shop windows immediately. Accusation: You look like the creatures from old minstrel shows.
At the beginning of the year, the Italian fashion company Gucci removed a sweater from its range with an oversized red mouth sewn into its black turtleneck. And the singer Katy Perry removed a black slipper with a human face from her fashion collection: white, large eyes, triangular nose, very red mouth. The singer expressed her regret over the misunderstanding on Twitter. All the accused were perplexed. All emphasized that they had thought no harm. And they wouldn't have anything to do with racism anyway.
But suddenly blackfacing was an issue again. For a long time it only existed as a crude photo joke by high school graduates, like in a 35-year-old photograph that showed the Democratic governor of Virginia Ralph Northam as a black-made-up Al Jolson figure - next to a fellow student in the Ku Klux Klan -Garment.
The fear of the whites
Northam came under massive political attack, and rightly so. But the latest blackface cases raise the question of where racism is still racism and at what point rational concerns about inappropriate gestures lead to paranoia. If the minstrel face or the slapstick black immediately comes to mind with a red mouth and black wool - aren't those who accuse latently racist? Perhaps more racist than those you accuse of being racist?
The blackface of the minstrel show: the depiction of African-Americans with black made-up whites, which was common on American vaudeville stages in the 19th century. Comedians came north from the southern states and showed curious Yankees what slaves were supposed to be. In order to make the whole thing as suitable for the stage as possible, they fell into clichés and thus encouraged the spread of racial stereotypes.
The "Plantation Dark", the "Dandy Coon", the "Mammy": They were lazy, stupid figures in baggy clothes or in the submissive cloaks of the domestic servants. They sat around inactive, ate melons and babbled "Yessum" or "Mh, uuh, me not know" in a raspy voice. The way the characters were conceived says nothing about who they were supposed to represent. But a lot about the white population that created it. They express the fear of the whites that the subordinate classes will refuse to work, the fear that they will be able to think for themselves, and the worry that the social hierarchy, which is taken for granted, could slip.
What does black mean?
Blackface dominated D. W. Griffith's monumental film epic "The Birth of a Nation" (1915). The first sound film "The Jazz Singer" (1927) showed the Jewish comedian Al Jolson with black make-up. The story of modern film, like that of ancient theater, began with a mask. And it is in the nature of the mask to be distortion. But the blackface shaped a derogatory grotesque face, just as anti-Semitism cultivated the stereotype of the oversized nose of the Jews. Blackface was banned in the sixties, but the clown mouth and the big eyes on a dark background were deeply engraved in the cultural memory.
Today the “black” category is not blurred, but it has become more complex. More complex than the skin color shows. Almost all African Americans also have white ancestors. Nevertheless, according to the "Law on Racial Integrity" of 1924, also known as the "Law of the One Drop of Blood", which was valid until 1967, everyone with black ancestors was deemed to be ignorant. So, historically, wisdom is a narrow category focused on purity. Blackness, on the other hand, is a broad category with diverse characteristics. Mariah Carey, Colin Powell, Michael Jackson, John Coltrane, Beyoncé - American society shows a broad spectrum of blackness.
Today, hair has more of an identity-creating function than the shade of the skin. Many African Americans are irritable when whites copy black hair fashion. In the eighties, for example, Bo Derek's cornrow hairstyle. Today the braided Rasta of white Jamaica tourists, under which the scalp shimmers pink.
Being black is not an accessory
According to the criticism, being black should not become an accessory. And: Statistically speaking, African Americans are still the weakest social class in the United States. Against this background, blacks interpret it as an expression of white power thinking when whites choose a hairstyle that is connoted with black culture.
If race were as freely selectable for everyone as Lionel Richie's moist, sticky lock of Jheri, then Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Billie Holiday would simply be Americans. But it is not like that. Blackface stages being white just like being black. But the whites can take off the black face at any time, the cotton pads with black make-up then simply fly in the trash. And the tormented, distorted, bloated face of the “Moor” does not create identity - except for white people whose frightened grimace shines through the make-up.
Only, not everything is blackface: the face with black make-up from high school yearbooks clearly alludes to power relations and is nothing other than racist. But the Perry shoes and the Gucci sweaters? The reflex to immediately think of "black people" when the lips are plumped up is not an expression of political consideration, but of reverse racism. Behind this is the gaze of the Klansmann - or the white man in the Minstrel Show.
Sarah Pines is a publicist and lives in New York.
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