Julianne Hough May Not Be Racist, But Here’s Why She’s Still Wrong

Julianne Hough in blackface Halloween 2013 Crazy Eyes Orange Is The New BlackOkay everybody. I’m sure you all think I’m overreacting about this Julianne Hough thing as much as I think you are, but we all need to calm down for a second and use our rational thoughts instead of our insane internet rage, okay? Let’s get down to the basic, undeniable facts of this situation, and we’ll work ourselves back into logic from there, how does that soundNo trolling allowed.

Julianne dressed up as a character named ‘Crazy Eyes’ from a show called Orange Is The New Black this Halloween. This character is played by Uzo Aduba, who is an African-American woman of Nigerian descent. Julianne is a Caucasian woman of Mormon Utah descent, so in order to look more like Uzo, she darkened her skin. It’s unclear if she used makeup or self-tanner or another method, but her skin was substantially, noticeably darkened, as were her eyebrows.

So far these are just facts, and I hope we can all agree of them, but things are about to get a little trickier, and understandably so. There was an enormous reaction to Julianne’s costume, on both ends of the spectrum and a lot of data points in between. Many people labeled what she had done as blackface, and wrote it off as anything from insensitive to racist to inappropriate to offensive. Others didn’t see what the big deal was, because it’s only a Halloween costume. If a white woman wants to look like a black woman, she has to darken her skin. What’s the problem with that? It goes the other way all the time. And still another group of people made it their business to attack the first group of people for being offended.

People are landing in a lot of different areas in this controversy, and things are getting out of control, so I need everyone to come back to earth for a second and remember what we’re talking about. We’re talking about racism, and giving offense, and the dangers inherent in ignorance. No one’s requiring you to be a part of the dialogue, so you can feel free to peace out and take your anonymous, hate-filled rants elsewhere. But if you do stick around, these are complicated topics that will require your full attention, your whole brain, and ideally a calm resting heartbeat.

Are you ready? Here we go.

I don’t think Julianne Hough is racist. I think she’s ignorant, absolutely, and she made an insensitive decision, but I don’t think it came from a malicious part of her. I could be wrong, but I think that her main crime is being sheltered enough that not one single person in her life saw her getting ready and went, “Yeah Julianne? You sure?” Because I think that’s what she needed. I genuinely believe that Julianne had no idea that her makeup could have been interpreted as blackface, otherwise I don’t think she would’ve gone out and let herself be photographed in it.

What I’m saying here is that I was not offended by this. I’ll only speak for myself, because that’s all I’m qualified to do, but I felt this was a case of ignorance moreso than racism.

That doesn’t excuse her behavior by any means, but it does go a ways toward explaining mine. Since we as a culture have decided that blackface is unacceptable, I expected to be able to point at Julianne’s costume choice, scoff under my breath, and join everybody in shaking our heads incredulously. “I can’t believe she did that. What was she thinking?” People make stupid decisions all the time, but as long as everybody gets the opportunity to take a good long look and reassure themselves that it wasn’t done for a malicious reason, they’re typically willing to move on.

HOWEVER. Remember that part when I said I could only speak for myself? Well that’s true of everyone, not just me. We all have different beliefs and things that make us comfortable and uncomfortable. And since that creates a lot of opposing opinions floating around in the world, sometimes we as a culture have to come up with rules or ideas that everyone adheres to in order to keep things civilized and less confusing. They’re social norms that members of certain groups are expected to internalize, regardless of their personal beliefs, to ensure that structure and civility can be maintained.

And wearing blackface happens to be one of them. No matter how you personally feel about blackface in the year 2013, it has an extensive history of being used to marginalize an entire race of people that goes back centuries. It was initially employed for minstrel shows in the 19th century, beginning in around 1830, as a way for white people to caricature black people, endowing them with negative traits depicting them as ‘buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious characters, who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language. Early blackface minstrels were all male, so cross-dressing white men also played black women who were often portrayed either as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish; in the matronly, mammy mold; or highly sexually provocative.’

These were characters who had no value except in connection to the performance’s white characters, and these shows became inextricably linked with the institution of slavery. The application of the black paint on the face was an outward symptom of the general feeling that black people were less than human. That they could be reduced to a collection of negative qualities, made to be the butt of jokes, and labeled with a collection of racial slurs and obscenities that unfortunately still persevere to this day.

Was this what Julianne intended to reference when she dressed as Crazy Eyes? Almost certainly not, but just because she’s ignorant of the historical context doesn’t mean that we can pretend that context doesn’t exist. In the same way that it’s still inappropriate to use the word ‘nigger’, no matter how pure you feel your intentions are, it’s also inappropriate to use blackface. It was used for centuries as a tool of oppression, and that can’t all be eradicated just because you feel you have the right to dress up as whoever you want to for Halloween.

BUT WHAT ABOUT WHITE CHICKS, comes the age-old argument. What about Tyra Banks painting her face white to resemble other models? Why is painting my face brown or black any different than painting it green or pink or any other color? Why can’t I do what I want?

Well, because you can’t. First of all, whiteface isn’t a thing. It has never been a thing. It was never used as a tool to sideline or minimize an entire effing culture, aka it’s not the same as blackface. It may seem like it should be the same, because it’s just different colors of the same paint, but that’s not how history works. I’m sure we’d all love the ability to divorce atrocities from their historical contexts — it would certainly make living in the modern world much more straight-forward and convenient — but we can’t. And here’s an example of why.

Before the Nazis commandeered it, the swastika had a lot of different meanings, and none of them were negative. In fact, the Sanskrit symbol was literally translated to ‘it is good’, and became a representation for auspiciousness in Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. But if you want to use that symbol now, that argument isn’t going to hold up, because the tragic deaths of millions of people at the hands of Hitler and the Nazi Party have given it a new meaning. And the same goes for darkening your face. No matter what your intentions, you have to know better. You have to be aware that blackface has become a symbol for the oppression of millions, and avoid it.

Is that fair to you, humble Halloween costume-wearer? Maybe not, but I’m okay with that. I’m okay with you not being able to express yourself one night a year in order to be just the slightest bit more sensitive to and tolerant of a race of people who suffered untold abuse for centuries. Not everything is fair, guys — remember that from when we were kids? We don’t all get to do exactly what we want to do exactly when we want to do it.

It’s like if you have a bag of peanuts but you’re on an airplane with someone who has an allergy. Sure, you wouldn’t be opening the bag with the express desire to cause them to have an allergic reaction, but you do need to be aware that that doesn’t alter reality. Your desire to eat the peanuts doesn’t outweigh the reaction of the person beside you to those very same peanuts. And they’re not choosing to react the way they do — you are just two separate people having different reactions to the same thing, and for the time that you share space together on that airplane, you need to be sensitive to their needs above your own. Or at least be able to weigh them and notice when you’re being unreasonable.

Bottom line — no matter what your intentions are, and how ready you feel to live in a post-racial world, you don’t yet. Something I learned very clearly from the comments on  Crushable posts this past weekend. You are very special and important and a unique, glimmering snowflake in your own right, but you are far from the only person on this plane, Julianne. So crack open a history book, get familiar with context clues, and pull it together.

(Image: Devone Byrd / Pacific Coast News)

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