Al Jolson performs in blackface makeup in the 1927 movie "The Jazz Singer." (AP)
Columnist

Blackface historically has meant the darkening of the face with some sort of makeup and the using of red and white face paint to exaggerate features, forming grotesque caricatures of African Americans. The imagery has been used with devastating effect to depict formerly enslaved people of African descent as uneducated, uncouth and unworthy of freedom.

And yet, about one-third of Americans say blackface would be acceptable as a Halloween costume, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. How could that be?

At the University of the District of Columbia last week, a panel of experts looked beneath the shoe-polished skin and minstrel buffoonery to reveal a mix of ignorance and racism.

“From our perspective, blackface is a hate symbol,” said Doron Ezickson, Washington regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “How we at the ADL attend to hate symbols is, one, call them out and, two, educate people because these incidents represent a failure in our society to educate about the origins and impact of bias.”

These incidents include admissions by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) that they had darkened their skin to portray black musicians while in school. There is also a photograph on Northam’s page of his medical school yearbook that shows a man in blackface posing with someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam maintains he is not in that picture and has no idea how it ended up on his page.

The controversy took another turn Tuesday at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where a predominantly black group known as the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club have a 110-year tradition of parading in blackface. Following the Virginia controversy, there were vociferous calls for them to the end the practice.

Dwandalyn R. Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said the intention of those who wear blackface should be taken into account.

“For me, everything is context,” Reece told me. “Whether people should do it or not, intention is the key. Is blackface different when black people use it? The Zulu use it as part of a historic tradition and culture, but the growing sensitivity to blackface would make a rule that applies to every situation. It’s difficult to understand when it’s okay and when it’s not, unless we know the history and the performance tradition behind it.”

A spokesman for the group answered critics in a news release last month.

“Those who incorrectly compare our use of black makeup to ‘“blackface’ minstrelsy can first look to our name to dispel that notion,” it read. “Unlike minstrelsy, which was designed to ridicule and mock black people, the founders of our Social Aid & Pleasure Club chose the name ‘Zulu’ to honor their African ancestry and the continent’s most fierce warriors . . . Zulu parade costumes bear no resemblance to the costumes worn by ‘blackface’ minstrel performers at the turn of the century.”

Despite the explanation, criticism of the tradition persists. And the Zulus remain adamant in their refusal to stop it. Is blackface okay when blacks do it to honor other blacks?

Back in 1959, white journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and passed himself off as a black man during a journey through the Deep South. In 1961, he published a book about his experience, “Black Like Me.” Being “black” proved to be a lot more difficult that he realized and many applauded him for his effort — including black people. Is it acceptable for whites who are trying to help blacks and not dehumanize them?

Former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt, who serves as founding director of UDC’s Institute of Politics, Policy and History, which sponsored last week’s panel discussion, had her own answers:

“For black people to go from being a commodity as slaves to a position of dignity has been an ongoing struggle, so any effort to dehumanize us can be unnerving,” she said. “So, in my view, there is a vast difference between somebody browning their skin to imitate a hip-hop artist and someone using blackface to dehumanize us, the way it was done in ‘Birth of a Nation.’ ”

That film portrayed black men as rapists and glorified the Klan in such a way that it led to a resurgence of the group.

As Reece sees it, blackface is essentially about a majority group’s appropriation of another culture and distorting it for their entertainment. And she points out that the patterns established in 19th-century minstrel shows continue today, even without the blackface.

“In some of the cop shows featuring a black and white partner, you’d see the white cop awkwardly trying to ‘act black,’ ” Reece said. “You don’t need blackface to mimic song and dance.”

The ADL is clear in how it sees blackface. It is grouped among the organization’s “Pyramid of Hate,” which includes hate symbols such as swastikas, nooses and burning crosses. At the base of the pyramid are common insults and slights which, if left unchecked, grow into increasingly offensive behavior and ultimately lead to violence. Even genocide.

The pyramid represents “a process in human nature where even acts that are historical or unintentional can form the foundation of a very dangerous chain of events,” Ezickson said.

“Only if we understand history can we see how blackface arises in a moral context,” he said. “Often the debate over blackface goes right to what is the intent of the individual. We start with what is the history and therefore what is the impact on people who were targeted.”

The purpose of a hate symbol, he said, is to “delegitimize people on the basis of race, religion, gender, and it’s fundamentally inconsistent with our individual right not to be discriminated against.”

But not everybody is ill-willed; some are just ill-informed.

“We need to do a lot more listening and empathizing,” Reece said. “We are in a time when that is most difficult, but we can’t abandon the effort.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.