Feature Image Attribution: Shawn Harquail @ Flickr
I rolled up to the door, checking the address against the one I had written on my hand. It matched. Cool.
I kind of knew the host of the Halloween party. I mean, I had met him a couple times.
Seemed like a good dude–he was a friend of some of my close friends.
I hoped my buddies were there already, so I wouldn’t have to insinuate myself into a conversation with strangers, or worse, stand around by myself trying to blend into the scenery while wearing a ridiculous costume.
The host, an African-American guy about my age, opened the door.
“Howdy Ho!” I said in a falsetto, waving my gloved hand in a circle in front of his face.
The host cocked his head to the side, and gave me a look whose message was unmistakable: What. The. Fuck.
In addition to the WTF component of his look, there was a definite tinge of antagonism–a little I’m About To Kick Your Ass in the clench of his jaw. I recognized that look, but was at a loss as to its cause.
“Um…hey” I started again, in my normal voice. “I’m Andy. We’ve met a few times…Phil and those guys said it was cool if I came by…”
“Yeah. I know who you are,” he said, without changing expression. Then he fanned his fingers in front of my face. “I’m just wondering what this shit is about.”
This shit? What does he mean? My face? He doesn’t get the costume? OK, whatever, not everyone will. But why the hostility? Does he think…oh my God. He thinks I’m…I’m wearing…Oh holy fuck I AM. I’m in BLACKFACE!
“Oh!” I started talking fast. “My costume! It’s not…ah…it’s not what you think. See…there’s this show on TV, I don’t know if you’ve seen it…”
It was 1998, and I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia.
My wife (girlfriend at the time) was in medical school, and I was a townie, having graduated from UVA with an English degree back in ’91, and, lacking any experience in the fast food industry, decided to pursue a career in construction instead.
By the late nineties, I had my own fly-by-night contracting company, comprised of me, my best friend from junior high, and a guy named Dave who I had to pick up every morning from jail under the aegis of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Joint Security Complex’s work-release program.
Times were good.
Outside of work, I had started hanging around with a bunch of History grad students I met at the dog park.
It was fun for me to spend time with these intellectual types who could spend an all-day hike talking about the slave trade in Virginia or make a socio-historical analysis of different kinds of pie last for the duration of a four-hour bike ride; and for some reason, they put up with me too.
I think they liked the stories about my days at work and all the characters I interacted with there–I provided a connection to the world beyond the musty library carrels and dank basements where they pecked away at their dissertations.
They also liked me because I had cable TV.
Besides being smart, my friends were notable for being broke.
They were living from stipend-to-credit-card-advance-to-student-loan.
There were four of them who shared one house, and in the winter they would sit at their computers all day long wearing coats, hats, and gloves rather than turn their heat up to a temperature conducive to human survival.
So it was a treat for them to come over to my house, which was warm and cozy, and be dazzled by the sights and sounds of basic cable coming out of my 24″ Zenith.
One of our weekly rituals was to watch this weird new animated show on Comedy Central where cute little kids enact absurd storylines rife with filthy gags and offensive language.
It was called South Park.
You may have heard of it. During its first few seasons, however, it wasn’t quite the cultural touchstone it would later become.
I knew going in that my decision to masquerade as a character who had only appeared on one episode of one show on one cable channel was a bit risky, in that not everyone would recognize me.
But my friends, and anyone the least bit hip, would love it, and wish that they had thought of it first. It was topical and clever.
It would kill.
I was going to tag along with my friends to a party that one of the other History grad students, this dude I had met a couple times, was throwing, and then we were going to hit a few more parties and maybe some bars.
In case you haven’t seen the seminal episode from the first season of South Park, Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, it centers around the character of Kyle, the Jewish kid, who feels isolated and shunned as his friends and neighbors celebrate Christmas.
He is visited by an impish talking turd, Mr. Hankey, who, in trying to lift Kyle’s spirits, only causes more trouble, until the end when [WARNING: SPOILER ALERT], the jolly piece of crap teaches Kyle and the whole town the true meaning of the holidays.
My costume was fairly simple: a brown XL sweat suit from the clearance rack in the women’s department at Ross Dress for Less, white knit gloves, and a Santa hat.
I wanted to make up my face, but had difficulty finding brown facepaint among the Halloween supplies at the mall. That should have been a clue that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.
Finally I hit upon a solution.
I went to Sears and scanned the makeup counter. A-HA! There it was. The perfect shade of brown lipstick to match my sweat suit!
I bought two sticks.
Perhaps, in retrospect, the fact that the lipstick had been nestled among other beauty products for women of color should have been another red flag that my little scheme had some potential for misinterpretation.
On some level, as I rubbed glossy brown lipstick onto my entire face and neck, I made the connection between what I was doing and the application (and implications) of blackface. I think two assumptions kept me from giving that blip of recognition any real consideration.
The first was, “I’m not masquerading as a black person; so this is totally different.”
The other assumption was, “Nobody would think anyone was ignorant enough to wear blackface–this is 1998, for God’s sake.” Again, I don’t think I even articulated these thoughts to myself, much less mulled them over. It didn’t register as anything worth worrying about.
I wish I could say that this oversight was based on pure, garden-variety stupidity, and not cultural insensitivity or the insulation of white privilege. I was aware of racism.
I lived in the South. I watched Spike Lee movies.
I had black friends, and not like “the one guy I kind of knew from high school,” but people I hung out with, worked with, lived next door to, went camping with, drank Cisco in the cemetery with, and so forth.
Unfortunately, none of them were around to smack me on the back of the head when I was smearing greasy lipstick onto my cheeks.
So, yeah, being a dumbass had a lot to do with my stepping out of the house dressed like that.
But being a product of white privilege, regardless of how many black drinking buddies I had, contributed a lot to my being a dumbass.
The host of the party nodded skeptically as I explained South Park, and who Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo was.
“Yeah, well, I don’t have cable,” he said. Of course he didn’t. He was another starving grad student.
“Well,” I said, “Phil and those guys always watch it at my house. You should come over with them.”
“Mmm-hmm,” he said. “I’m pretty busy.” He moved out of the doorway so he wasn’t blocking it, but didn’t exactly invite me in. “Let me ask you something, man. You really didn’t think there was anything wrong with your costume?”
“No,” I said. “Because I’m not trying to be black! See? I’m just, you know…a…you know…a piece…a piece of shit.”
My friends showed up and laughed about my costume and my stupidity, and I shame-sweated through my lipstick for an hour before we moved on to a party at the old movie theatre on the downtown pedestrian mall, where I ducked into the bathroom and scrubbed my face with wet paper towels.
From The Beta Dad Blog.