This past Halloween, I saw a multitude of sugar skulls, superheroes and mimes. I also saw a group of Oompa-Loompas, from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which was very amusing. The Oompa-Loompas were dressed in the appropriate white overalls with brown undershirts, high socks and orange faces. It wouldn’t make sense for a person dressing up as an Oompa-Loompa to have a purple face, a black face or a white face, because Oompa-Loompas have orange faces. They are orange characters.
The famous actress, singer and dancer Julianne Hough dressed for Halloween as “Crazy Eyes” from the Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black.” Hough was severely condemned for her costume because she not only dressed herself in an orange jumpsuit with her hair up in the character’s signature Bantu knots, but also painted her face black.
The character’s face is not purple, green or white. Her face is black. “Crazy Eyes” is a black character.
The following day, Hough was vehemently criticized on Twitter and many other social media websites. Both the Huffington Post and USA Today published articles discussing the stupidity of Hough’s decision to paint her face black for Halloween.
CNN also held a live debate regarding Hough’s costume. The four participants in the debate discussed Hough’s ignorance toward issues of race and white supremacy in the United States, and the pivotal question of the evening, which was if Hough had any black friends.
The fact that CNN chose to do a live story on a famous actress’ Halloween costume is a sad indication of America’s attentiveness to insignificant news in and of itself.
But what really troubles me is the backlash Hough received for a costume no different than dressing as an Oompa-Loompa.
The hullabaloo with racially identifiable Halloween costumes draws a very thin line between what is considered politically correct or not.
The controversy stems from practices used in minstrel shows back in the 1830s. During a time when race was at the foreground of our country’s turmoil, minstrel shows were the highlight of American amusement. White actors and actresses would dress up as black people, perform comedic skits and put on dance routines and sing, all the while portraying them as dim-witted, lazy and buffoonish.
The key characteristic that defined the genre was blackface: painting one’s face black, and one’s mouth and eyes white. For minstrel shows, the purpose of blackface was to represent black people as animalistic.
Throughout the 1830s and ’40s, blackface epitomized black people as inferior. The genre, and more specifically blackface, came to symbolize racism and extreme crudeness toward the black population.
However, it has been nearly 200 years since the earliest minstrel shows existed, nearly 60 years since the Civil Rights Movement took place and nearly six years since our country elected a black president. Every day we are taking steps toward more equality.
But linking Hough’s costume with blackface from the 1830s is only taking steps backward. Hough did not intend to be offensive; her costume had nothing to do with race, but with a show and a character that so many find enjoyable.
By creating racist claims out of something so innocent as a Halloween costume, we are further perpetuating race as an all-inclusive issue when it doesn’t have to be.
Had Hough dressed as President Barack Obama and donned a mass-made mask, which of course is black like the president, nothing would have come of it.
Had a black person dressed as the Pope and painted his face white, again, nothing this severe would have come of it.
Our reaction to Hough’s costume is nothing short of racism itself.
Julianne Cuba’s follow-up column and apology can be found here.