THE SCARLET LETTER – “R”, OR IS IT “BF”?

I am hearing a message. It goes something like this:

“If a white person ever in their life has used dark face makeup to portray a person of color, whether a specific real or fictional person, or a generalized person of color, then we know they are a racist and must be driven from public life and public office. It does not matter how long ago it happened or what they have done since then. It does not matter what the occasion was. It does not matter what may have been their intent, their thinking, or their feelings about the performance. It does not matter whether it was the traditional blackface stock character pattern of the minstrel show, or simply a darkening of the face. None of that matters and we don’t want to know or ask about those details. The offender is branded with an indelible Scarlet Letter of shame as a racist. There is no appeal, no redemption, and no mitigation possible. We know all we need to know about them.”

There is a presumption embedded in in that statement, that two actions are identical in intent and effect, morally and ethically indistinguishable.

One of those is the wearing of the standard makeup of a stock character* in 19th Century minstrel shows, the “Blackface” or “Darkie” character. That character appeared with deep black face paint and exaggerated lips drawn in a contrasting color, usually white or red. It is a clown face, and the character is a buffoon, expressing and acting out some of the most insulting stereotypes of black people.

The other is the use by a white person of dark makeup (without the clown lips) to appear more like any other character of color in any other performance context.

That presumption is nonsense.

The statement also presumes that anyone not an African or African-American who has used a dark makeup even once is permanently compromised and cannot be credited with any ability or accomplishment of learning or maturing as regards race relations.

That, also, is nonsense.

I submit for consideration the idea that we are unwise to be making decisions about holders of, or candidates for high public office based on nonsense and unwarranted presumptions.

*Stock Character: The history of theater includes many stock characters with more or less standardized costumes and makeups. Perhaps the most well known example is the characters of the Commedia dell’arte [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commedia_dell%27arte]. A related set is the cast of the “Punch And Judy” puppet show.

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