• Mon, Oct 28 - 6:04 pm ET

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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  • Jessieface

    You know, there are a lot of points in my day where I see people, and the various choices that they have made – and I think to myself, ‘Where are their friends?”. I think this was one of those situations. I agree with you, I don’t think there was malicious intent (though I do not know Julianne personally and I could be wrong) but I agree she is probably ignorant and sheltered – and had no one around her to help her out. Which, in my opinion is as bad.

  • elle

    This may be a very long post and I’m going to word it as carefully as possible if I do any thing wring/offensive please let me know nicely! I guess another thing I need to preface this with to explain some if my wording is that I’m half white half Turkish so I don’t identify as white. I agree with this 100%. Seriously I don’t think she meant it maliciously at all she was just being really naive. Here is why I think she was being naive: growing up in Utah (fun aside I actually went to high school with her) we are very sheltered to race relations. Seriously it is super white here and I think there is a naivete that comes with growing up in a very white place where you really don’t have to think about these issues because they aren’t right in front of your eyes. But I am very surprised not one person in her entourage said anything to her.there is a huge history there and blackface is just never ok! Did they all think it was okay and we would laugh it off? I’m not laughing.
    What I did get offended by was all these white people coming out of the woodwork telling POC why they shouldn’t be offended and why exactly it was ok and why they should be complimented that one of you whites want to look like them (not necessarily comments I saw in this site but commenting that I have seen. Unbelievable.) Unless you have been impressed from your skin color you never get to tell anybody how they should feel. Which is why White Chicks while offensively stupid isn’t offensive. Because putting white face on isn’t making a mockery of a still very oppressed group of people.

    • elle

      Ok impressed should be oppressed. Stupid autocorrect.

  • CMc

    I agree with your post. I personally wasn’t really offended by Julianne. However, I also think it probably isn’t a good idea in general to take a visually stereotypical feature of any race/ethnicity and try to mimic it. (That means you Tyra.) Maybe it’s because I have a problem with the concept of it’s not ok for one group to do it but it’s ok for another to do it despite the historical significance factor. (For the record, I also think it’s not ok for anyone to use the N-word. It’s not ok for blacks, whites, purples, whatever. No matter how many times I hear it in a rap song, I don’t care. Not. Ok.) I know all about blackface. But I feel like maybe because current generations didn’t experience it, it makes it harder for some to understand what on the surface, seems like a double standard. I mean we can say, “But it isn’t a double standard!” til we’re blue in the face. Doesn’t matter. People will think that. So in order to be sensitive to all, I think it’s just safer to take it all off the table. I put it in the same family as mimicing Chinese people by pulling the corners of your eyes back. Whenever a picture of someone doing that pops up it creates an uproar (remember the Spanish Basketball team & Pau Gasol?). You may think it’s funny, you may think you’re paying a compliment, but what you’re doing is taking a risk. You’re risking being seen as insensitive, ignorant, offensive and at worst racist. Sure it’s your right to take that risk. It’s also my right to cringe, or shake my head at you and possibly be offended. We are all offended by different things. I think we need to stop arguing about what we should or should not be offended by (because we will NEVER come to a 100% agreement), and practice a little more empathy.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Yeah, I totally agree with the rights thing. If you want to be seen as insensitive and racist, you can do whatever the hell you want, including leaving your house in blackface. But you also have to take responsibility for the fact that you’re subjecting yourself to public scrutiny, and I have the right to remark on your actions.

    • Trish Chasity

      Or actor Mickey Rooney mimicking a Chinese man in the famous movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s??

  • CMJ

    Well said.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Thank you! Thanks for reading!

  • Kathleen

    She should have just gone as the “tanning mom” lol, but on a serious note, it was a really poor choice on her part. I can’t believe she thought it was a good idea, she should also re-think about who she chooses to surround herself with as well, because it baffles me that absolutely no one told her that it was a really ignorant and bad decision. Julianne needs to crack open a history book and educate herself.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      I can’t believe not a single person set her straight. That’s mind-boggling to me.

    • Trish Chasity

      So why so many whites if not as many blacks think it is okay to let it go and move on? Is this their way of saying don’t play the race card??? Seen that comment so many times? Or trying to quiet black folks who maybe offended so that it is an excuse to continue with such pratices in the future????

  • Alex

    I’m a bit uncomfortable with the author’s argument that if enough people are offended by something, you shouldn’t be able to do it under any circumstances. I want to address your swastika example. Most U.S. citizens see the swastika symbol as a sign of Hitler and the Nazis. However, as I understand it and as the author noted, the Buddhists also use the swastika as a very powerful symbol (in that it has a lot of meaning to them) and it is seen in temples, sculptures, gates, texts, etc. In regards to using a swastika symbol, the author writes “no matter what your intentions, you have to know better”, which seems to imply that the symbol can never be used by anyone for any reason. And this is where I take issue. If I were to drive up to a Buddhist temple somewhere in the U.S. and I saw their version of the swastika on the gates of the temple or in the temple, I wouldn’t walk up to the monks and say “That symbol is offensive. Take it down and do a google search for ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler’ on your computer”. If someone were to tell the Buddhists to take down their symbol because of the connection to Nazis, I would think the person doing so would be wrong and guilty themselves of either ignorance (if they didn’t know the Buddhist interpretation of the symbol) or intolerance (if they did know the Buddhist interpretation). I don’t want to make it sound that I don’t sympathize with the victims of the Holocaust or understand the threat that Hitler posed to the world, but hopefully you can see why I would take issue with the “swastika symbol is not acceptable ever” point of view.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      I think what I mean is that you can’t go as a Buddhist for Halloween and wear a swastika on your sleeve and not expect to upset some people. In that particular situation, it’s all about context and knowing better. That’s what I mean, I think.

      If you really are dead set on being in blackface, you’re free to do that around your own home, weird as that would be. But as soon as you step outside with it, you open yourself up to the interpretations and feelings of those around you. And if you happen to be famous, those things get amplified significantly.

      Does that make sense?

    • Alex

      Oh okay. I thought you were making a blanket statement that if something offends people enough, you can’t do it no matter what, I didn’t realize that in your example of swastikas, you were still speaking in the context of halloween. Yeah I definitely wouldn’t wear a Buddhist version of a swastika if I’m dressing as a monk for halloween.

    • whiteroses

      I agree. Personally, as someone who lost quite a few family members in the Holocaust (and I hate that phraseology, because we didn’t LOSE them, they were taken from us) the swastika will always make me uncomfortable, no matter the context. I lived in Asia for a few years, and at one point lived across the street from a Buddhist temple with a huge glowing swastika in the window.

      As uncomfortable as it made ME, it meant something entirely different to them, mostly because the people I lived around had no context to connect with the Shoah whatsoever. By and large it’s not a part of their history like it is for us.

    • Alex

      I agree with the argument that as a human being about to walk out in public and especially as a celebrity, Hough should have known that her costume would create controversy and outrage. If what you mean when you say things like “I can’t believe people didn’t warn her” is that you can’t believe they didn’t warn her that people would giver her a lot of controversial/negative press for her costume, I agree. It’s the argument that her friends should have warned her by saying “your costume is racist/bad” that I take issue with. If all you’re trying to say is that she should have been aware that going out with that costume would create a pr crisis and that people are sensitive to that, then I guess we’re in agreement.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      No I think they should’ve told her that she’d get in trouble for it. Her friends can think whatever they want, but someone should be looking out for the media reaction.

  • Alex

    In regards to Hough specifically, I understand that people of all races may be offended by what she did. And while I’m certainly not going to tell them they can’t be offended by what Hough did given the racially charged history of black people in the U.S. and blackface performances specifically, I do question whether they should be so offended by what Hough did. Hough’s actions in darkening her face to look more like crazy eyes were not racist or offensive, her actions show that she simply acknowledged that crazy eyes is black, which crazy eyes is, and in the spirit of costumes and trying to accurately resemble someone, darkened her face. If she had dressed up in blackface with the big lips and asked for fried chicken? That would be racist. If she had shown up with a banana in her back-pocket I would think people would and should be very offended by her. In the case of what really happened, what are the people who are so offended actually so offended by? That the mere sight of seeing a white person color their face black is cause for uproar simply because it resembles a much more offensive practice? Or is it because blacks have suffered so much injustice throughout U.S. history, that people shouldn’t be able to wear dark makeup out of respect for these injustices? A mixture of both? I’m not trying to put words into anyone’s mouth, I honestly am don’t know, and I can’t say attitudes like that are wrong. But I can’t help but wonder, are those attitudes helpful or productive to race relations? Or do they further inject tension and strain into race relations? I want to emphasize that I’m not saying that people can’t be offended by what Hough did- people have the right to be offended by whatever they want. Mostly I just want to try and understand exactly why people are so offended and hopefully have a thoughtful dialogue.

    • JLH1986

      While I agree with the author that it was in poor taste (and seriously NONE of those people said girl…think this one through?) I also have to question, that since it was a group costume and she had decided to be “Crazy Eyes” and had not used anything to darken her face what the response would have been? Then it’s not an accurate costume and I’m sure someone would say “She too good to pretend to be black?” I think it wasn’t a good costume choice, I do think she’s totally naïve if it never crossed her mind that it might be found offensive or hurtful and her friends suck at life for not pointing that out. But I think she would have lost out either way. So essentially it was an all around bad costume choice.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      I can only speak for myself, but it would never have occurred to me that Julianne thought she was ‘too good to pretend to be black’ just because she didn’t go in blackface. That doesn’t really make sense to me.

    • CMc

      I feel like the people who would find fault with not wearing blackface, are the same people who find fault in everything you do. You dress up as a nurse, they’d think you hate doctors. You dress up as a black cat, they’d think you have something against calicos.

    • Trish Chasity

      If I was black it would not offend me. Countless whites so desperately want to be white and be given the permission to say the N word while expecting blacks to calm down from such actions and just deal. Makes me wonder what was Civil Rights for anyway??? People say yeah its just a costume. Sure it is. WE whites can take that make up off and remove it with soap AND WATER. A black person wears their costume permanently like a tattoo which was made by God. unfortunately the latter causes them to end up being harassed and treated unfairly…

    • Alex

      That’s really interesting, I never thought of it that way before- the idea that if she didn’t darken her face people would have still been offended. Certainly some people might have felt that way, but I think the majority of people would have let it go- I definitely think she would have had an easier time explaining herself if she hadn’t worn the makeup. I agree though, it seems Crazy Eyes was a poor character to choose (which is a shame because Crazy Eyes is a great character in the show!) because of the controversy. I get that people were offended, I just wish so much controversy didn’t have to arise because of this. Was Hough ignorant to the history of blackface and the potential offense people would take? Probably to the first, yes to the second. Was she wrong to wear her costume in public, particularly as a celebrity? Yes. Was the costume itself wrong or offensive? In my opinion, no.

    • CMc

      As someone who is black, I have never lightened my face if I am dressing up as a character with a different ethnicity. I have never been questioned if I thought I was too good to pretend to be [insert other race here]. However, I have known people to be criticized for dressing up as a character from a different race and not looking accurate enough because of the obvious differences in skin color. For example, I knew of a black girl who dressed up as the anime character Sailor Moon. She got told she was “too dark” to be that character. That it was “inappropriate.”

      For Halloween, I rarely have the urge to dress up anymore. But my hubby loves to dress up so I tell him to pick a character for me and I’ll dress up to match him. This Halloween it just clicked in my head that the last 3 years he has picked black characters for me. I asked him why. He said that he just figured it would make it easier for people to figure out who I was. He didn’t want people to be confused. SMH. I’m pretty sure if I were to wear a Wonder Woman outfit complete with the headband and wristbands people could figure it out. I’m almost positive. So in my experience, it’s far more likely that people think you shouldn’t cross the ethnic boundary lines when picking a costume for whatever reason, than think that you’re too stuck up to change your skin color to match the character you choose. Not saying it can’t happen, just that I think it’s lower on the list of common responses.

    • anon

      Don’t reply to this asking me why or trying to debate with me. I’m telling you why I’m offended and I’m not going to justify it. I am a black female. I am offended because of what the writer said + blackface perpetuates negative stereotypes about black people. When people put on blackface they are “putting on” a black mask that makes them ‘black’ for a moment. In most costume settings, in that moment they behave however a ‘black’ person behaves and this 99% of the time includes stereotyped behavior. (acting like a thug, slave, ‘ho’, etc.)

      When people of color have interpersonal relationships with white people, they are stereotyped. even your nicest friend will stereotype you – can you dance? Can you sing? You’re athletic. Stereotypes influence performance of the people being stereotyped (and negative stereotypes yield negative results, obviously). Microaggressions, respectability politics, even interracial romantic relationships are ALL heavily influenced by the ability of the oppressor (white people) to negatively stereotype people of color. Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes and, by extension, still wrong.

      I don’t like to be stereotyped, and I am even by my closest friends who are also white. It hurts your feelings, it makes you cry, it’s confusing.

      Blackface is not okay.

    • Alex

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, and I hope my post didn’t imply that you can’t be offended.

      I disagree with you on a few points. I realize that there are many racist stereotypes both good and bad about blacks that exist, and at certain times, blackface was used as a tool to promote stereotypes. However, I don’t think what Julianne Hough did perpetuated stereotypes. I don’t know the details on Hough’s actions or behavior the night of the party, but it doesn’t sound like she engaged in any if the stereotyped behavior that you described.

      I also don’t think it’s likely that even if Hough had done stereotyped behaviors she would have been successful in getting people to believe that her behavior was an accurate representation of how all black people actually act. In fact, if she had engaged in stereotyped behaviors good or bad, I think she would have gotten in a lot of trouble (just look at the reaction she got simply by wearing the costume).

      Again, I realize that there are many stereotypes that are still out there, but I don’t think that darkening your face with the purpose of accurately depicting the physical attributes of a person who is black will effectively perpetuate those stereotypes.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Really interesting stuff. It’s hard to take microaggressions into account, for sure. Thank you for sharing.

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  • Trish Chasity

    Good article We maybe the same underneath but on the outside we are different. Have respect regardless and learn your history no doubt. For whites including myself, please don’t say I have a Black friend or a girlfriend! Just because you are boning someone or you shoot the breeze with someone darker than you does not mean you understand the injustices they or their ethnicities have endured for years

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • johnnyp10

    But isn’t racism often rooted in ignorance? Xenophobia sure is.

  • Kate McGarry

    I really love the analogy about the peanut allergy on the plane – thanks for putting this argument into context that everyone (hopefully? fingers crossed? yeah?) can understand

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Yeah of course! So glad you enjoyed that!

    • kitnco

      looks like a lot of the readers don’t understand though. I’m sorry. You tried….

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      I can only do what I can do!

  • Lauren L.

    Great piece, Alexis. Really well written.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Lauren! Thank you! You’re great.

  • ariro

    I’ve never watched the show Orange is the New Black, so based off of that, this was my feelings… I understand the negative connotations of wearing blackface. If she wasn’t impersonating a character from that show I can see how dressing up as a black women in jail clothes is very offensive. But, she was just representing a character in a show innocently. She didn’t do her makeup in a degrading way that would make u feel that she was making African-Americans look like monkeys (like they did in the past). That is why I don’t see her costume as racist. If we want society to change, we don’t need to keep bringing up negative stigmas from the past all the time when it doesn’t count. I think people are being too stuck on the stigma that they want to make it a racist thing. Also, if people want to make of point of racism, or degrading stigmas, they should consider the show itself. It could be that “crazy-eyes” is a racist interpretation of a black women herself, and Julianna Hough is not to blame. The problem is deeper.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      I think you might be confusing innocent with ignorant. We as a society have decided that blackface is not acceptable, based on its extremely negative connotations in history. That’s it. There’s no way around it.

    • ariro

      You missed my point, the actress was not in blackface, she was imitating a character whom happens to be black, she was not mocking her. If there is something to be angry about, it is the portrayal of black women in the media.

    • Alex

      I agree with you- there are a lot of things in our society that are harmful and promote racist streotypes, but what Hough did isn’t one of them.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      She was in blackface. Beyond that, the context doesn’t matter.

    • Alex

      I think ariro meant to say innocent, but I guess either innocent or ignorant could be accurately used to describe the situation. Also, to me, “we as a society have decided” is not a good argument as to why Julianne Hough was wrong, and I think in most cases isn’t a very good reason to keep a certain behavior/social standard/law/value etc.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      In general I agree with you, but I think blackface is an exception. There may be a time when it’s acceptable, but that time is not now.

    • kitnco

      if you aren’t black, your opinion on how racist her costume is literally doesn’t matter.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      As the white author of the post above, I think your opinion matters no matter what ethnicity you are, but nobody should ever be speaking for anyone but themselves, because I think that’s where we get into trouble.

  • MCR

    Good, clear explanation. Thank you for trying again to clear this up. I don’t believe the young woman was being deliberately offensive, but once things were explained to her, the right thing to do is explain that you didn’t realize, apologize, and not do it again. I’m not sure why this is still being debated.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      As always, thank you for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed.

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