Blackface vs. make-up

A second-grader in Colorado was assigned to dress up as a historical figure for a “wax museum day”.

Given the sheer amount of time and attention given to Martin Luther King in the typical school year, it might come as no surprise that this second-grader wanted to come as King.

Sean’s mother, Michelle King-Roca, told Denver’s 7News her son was really excited about the project.

“He said, ‘Mom, I want to wear a black suit because that’s what he wore, a black tie, a white shirt, and also I want to do my face black and wear a mustache,'” said King-Roca.

Hilarity ensues.  Well, sort of.

After complaints from a faculty member that took issue with the blackface, the principal asked Sean to remove the face paint or leave the school.

* * * *

A spokeswoman for the principal told KRDO that some students, as well as the faculty member who initially complained, felt the costume was offensive. It’s the principal’s job to make sure the school is a safe environment for students, she said.

Face paint violates the school’s dress code policy, she said.

Sigh.  These people (and by “these people” I mean the morons who perpetuate this sort of stupidity — morons of all races) never get tired of proclaiming perfectly well-intentioned things to be offensive, do they?

I had always thought that there was an obvious (and reasonable) distinction between “Blackface” proper — the gross cariacature of Black people using extremely dark make-up that gave an illusion of giant-sized lips, usually coupled with vulgarly offensive steretyped acting or singing — and simple stage make-up to alter one’s apparent skin tone in an attempt to make one’s costume a better costume.    Was I wrong?

I was once in a production of Fiddler on the Roof once as a Russian Dancer.  It occurred to me, as I was doing make-up on opening night, that there weren’t many Mexican-Americans in turn of the century Russia.  So I thought for a moment, and decided to make myself into something of a Mongol-blooded Cossack — with a slightly darker foundation and some clever eye make-up.  I certainly didn’t think I was being racist.

But maybe I was mistaken.  Maybe really dark foundation isn’t just make-up, to be used when the appropriate need arises… but is really foundation exclusively for use by black people.  I mean, nothing says racial harmony like having a make-up counter with products you can’t buy because of your race, right?

You might be forgiven if you thought that the point of a costume was to, you know, look like the person as whom you are dressing.  If I’m going to dress as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, I’m not just going to need some darker make-up — I’m going to need stilts and a nametag that says “Roger Murdock”.

My friend Bradley (who is quite dark-skinned, as such things go) is going to need some pale make-up and a wheelchair if he wants to be FDR.

But maybe that would be offensive, too.

Could we all agree that, were it possible to buy an MLK silicone or latex mask, that wouldn’t be racist?  But what’s the difference, really?

(Good luck trying to find one, though.  I looked for twenty minutes; maybe it is offensive.)


UPDATE: Minor ambiguity in the second sentence corrected.


  1. Which is more offensive — a kid wearing dark make-up to make himself appear to be the most prominent African-American civil rights figure, or a white kid standing up and claiming he is Martin Luther King? I vote for the latter.

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    It wasn’t until your last paragraph that I realized you were talking about Martin Luther King. At the second paragraph, I thought, “King who?” It doesn’t help that his last name includes “King” too.

  3. SuperSub says:

    Can’t have little white children running around wanting to be MLK, can we (sarcasm)?

  4. I just wanted to say that I found your “Roger Murdock” reference to be awesome! “Tell your old man to try dragging your Walton up and down the court ofr 48 minutes!”

  5. No, you’re not wrong. These people crushed the love and imagination of a child.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    It’s the principal’s job to make sure the school is a safe environment for students, she said.

    Of course, this student was not trying to do anyone harm, was not threatening anyone, and was not about to physically or verbally hurt anyone. However, the principal seems to be saying some people will feel unsafe because of it. At the least, they will feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Has it occurred to the principal that her action made the school an unsafe environment for this student? Unsafe in the same sense of “this action made me feel unwelcome and like a bad person” even though I was trying to be good.

  7. My daughter, who was born on Feb. 22, dressed up as George Washington for history day at her elementary school. Nobody accused her of coming to school in drag. Of course, if a boy had wanted to come as Betsy Ross . . .