In the bell hooks book, Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-esteem, she states, “Every day there is an individual black person unlearning racist socialization and actively building healthy self-esteem because they simply dared to look for the information that could help the trouble that they knew was ailing them.”
Blackface has once again climbed out of the bowels of American culture, flooding headlines and news feeds with story after story of people in positions of power making a mockery of features that centuries of people have fought battles to love.
Racism destroys Black self-esteem. Mainstream media is committed to looking at racism as it pertains to whiteness and the fragility which accompanies it, without any indication toward the harm active and passive racism have on black people’s self-esteem. The common narrative is that people who engage in racist behavior get a pass because they “didn't know any better.” This argument doesn't hold water. Not only does it place the burden of education on black people, it ignores the agency of white people to educate themselves on things they don't know. The issue is not that white people do not understand, the issue is that they have great incentive not to.
Virginia's Democratic governor proved this when he recently apologized for a 1984 yearbook photo which surfaced of him, featuring a KKK costume and a person in blackface being strung up from the ceiling. When calls for his resignation came, the governor sang a different tune, no longer believing it was him in the photo of his yearbook page.
In a recent stump speech in Iowa, presidential hopeful Cory Booker said that black people need to step into a white person’s shoes and imagine the fear they experience. This argument positions white feelings over black lives, instead of placing the burden where it belongs. He is talking about healing, but this is not how healing happens.
Healing happens by creating boundaries and refusing to carry other people's burdens. The goal is to return the burden to those who perpetuate inherited racist ideologies and belief systems.
A wave of healing is sweeping across the globe and black people are diving in. Self-esteem is on the rise and black people in America are refusing to be forced into emotional slave labor — undoing racism doesn’t come with a paycheck and it is crucial to our survival — instead, black people are demanding that politicians, mainstream media, school teachers and presidential hopefuls do the work.
The time has come to change the narrative: blackface is harmful. People who engage in blackface, and those who don’t understand the issue, are actively harmful. bell hooks says, “Increasingly, social critics tell us that self-sabotage in black life is not the result of racism...so much of it reinforces the notion that individual willpower is all that is needed to overcome oppression and exploitation, and issues of self-esteem are regarded as unimportant. Indeed, this failure to see the importance of self-esteem is a reflection of mainstream culture’s disinterest in the issue of self-esteem.”
Simply put, if we are to truly address racism, we must look at the mental and emotional harm it has done.