As more government officials from Virginia acknowledge they participated in blackface, journalists and activists have rushed to secure yearbooks for public figures, to see who else might have left evidence of college-aged blackface. That search has led to more and more discoveries of pictures of white college students donning blackface for parties, Halloween and fraternity and sorority gags. These photos are circulating through social media, and not all of them are from decades ago. So why has blackface persisted on college campuses? And are these students’ actions merely tone-deaf mistakes or part of a more insidious rite of passage?
The history of blackface, and its relationship to white identity, may give us this answer. Since its popularization in the early 19th century, blackface has been used as a way for nonblack people to work out their sexual, class and racial identities, without repercussions, before fully participating in a society that strictly policed those identities, often violently. It is a ritual that helps nonblack people enter white society, to the continued detriment of African Americans.
The origin of blackface performances can be traced to the industrial North and Midwest of the United States in the early 19th century, where free African Americans and European immigrants worked and lived in close settings. The performances started through a sort of genuine cultural exchange: an Irish immigrant might learn a spiritual, and a black worker might learn an Irish song on the fiddle. Some black performers donned blackface as a performative style during their own acts. In such variety shows put on for a heterogenous working class, blackface performance explored identity and often straddled the fine line between genuine appreciation and ridicule.
Sweeping changes in immigration and labor tipped the balance of this delicate exchange. As historian Eric Lott explains, blackface transformed into a performance that “assuaged an acute sense of insecurity by indulging feelings of racial superiority” among the European immigrants. In a precarious moment of change, it became a way for European immigrants to secure their superiority over African Americans and thus become white.
In this period, “whiteness” was central to asserting rights of citizenship. But this racial category was in flux. Irish people were considered closer to black than white, and the government questioned if they would ever be fit for citizenship. Jewish, Italian and other European groups were met with equal scrutiny.
The landscape of labor in the country was also changing. Migrants left mostly agrarian lifestyles in Europe to work in factories in the United States. They often compared the squalid conditions of industrial work to slavery in the South. For these migrants, the line between free labor in the North and slave labor in the South was not always so clear, as Northern workers faced long working hours, little pay and no opportunities for economic mobility.
Migrant sexuality was also scrutinized. White upper-class society worried that immigrants were not only uneducated and unclean, but also too sexually unrestrained, having too many children and engaging in polygamy. Again, questions circulated about if these new immigrants could fit into American society.
In this environment of dramatic change and insecurity, however, blackness was still a fixed category, codified by the slave system and sustained through violence and racial stereotypes. For Northern workers who had just emigrated from Europe, blackface became a way to show that they could assimilate into the existing racial hierarchy: all they needed to do was endorse anti-blackness. Importantly, it was also a way to express the behaviors that they had lost by entering the strict racial society. By putting black chalk on their skin and acting over-sexualized and unintelligent in front of a rural backdrop, they could both be sexual and agrarian and make fun of it by displacing it onto black skin. Blackface allowed its performers to enter white society even while breaking its rules.
Blackface performance became immensely popular throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th century. It was a fixture of white working-class popular culture, and surfaced outside the confines of the theater. This popular culture helped create a new white working-class solidarity, which translated into white-only unions, support for segregated housing and outright violence against African Americans. As Gabrielle Bruney has pointed out, young working-class whites drunkenly marched the streets of Philadelphia in blackface annually, singing and beating up African Americans along the way. By the dawn of a new century, blackface aided the growth of a young white working class while also allowing an escape from its confines.
Perhaps the clearest example of this in popular culture is the semi-autobiographical movie “The Jazz Singer,” released in 1927 and the first motion picture with sound. Based on the life of Al Jolson (whose real name was Asa Yoelson), the movie is a coming-of-age story, a generational drama and a romance that revolves around, but never explicitly talks about, blackface. It tells the story of a first-generation Jewish immigrant, whose father wants him to be a cantor, while he wants to be a jazz singer. This tension — between his Jewish and American identity, between old and new and between marrying a Jewish woman or a non-Jew — is all worked out when he performs in blackface.
As explicit blackface lost favor, the performance of imagined blackness remained important for white youth. Whether through music, beauty styles or speech patterns, white youth have continued to dip their toe into an imagined blackness before settling into white respectable adulthoods.
This history sheds light on why politicians dressed in blackface in college, and why students continue to do so now. College is a time when young people experiment with their identity. For young white students, putting on blackface allowed (and allows) young men and women to displace their anxieties on their newly black bodies.
But they can then rub off the paint and return to the privileges that their white skin affords them. They can become the respectable lawmakers and professionals they want to be. Meanwhile, black Americans suffer from the humiliating stereotypes that these performances pin on them. As such, these students are not acting out blackness, but white supremacy. And so for these lawmakers, blackface was not a mistake: it was a steppingstone to the rest of their lives.