What One Celebrity's Blackface Costume Says About Education in America

HoughHoughBlonde, fair-skinned actress Julianne Hough wore dark makeup as part of a Halloween costume this weekend, apparently blithely oblivious to the history of blackface in America.

Ms. Hough and a group of friends went to a Halloween party as the racially diverse cast of the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black, which takes place in a women's prison. Although none of the other people in her group altered their skin tone, Ms. Hough seems to have applied a heaping helping of dark bronzer in an attempt to look more like actress Uzo Aduba, who plays the character of Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren.

Related: 10 tips to avoid a racist Halloween costume

In response to harsh, immediate criticism, Ms. Hough tweeted an apology:

"I am a huge fan of the show Orange is the New Black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize."

Look, I get that this costume isn't as blatantly awful as the guy who dressed up as Trayvon Martin, wearing not only blackface but a bloodied hoodie. That costume was intentionally and horribly racist. Ms. Hough's costume wasn't intentionally racist, and her apology seems genuine. I think she truly had no idea that her costume could be construed as offensive.

But that begs the question: how does a 25-year-old woman not realize exactly that? How do you get to be 25 years old and not have any inkling that darkening your lily-white skin for the entertainment of others just might be loaded with some pretty heavy connotations? I feel like we covered this in U.S. History during my junior year of high school.

Here's a mini history lesson: blackface minstrelsy was created to mock, degrade, and dehumanize African Americans. At a time when movie theaters, television, and the internet did not exist to entertain us, millions of Americans went to see live performances of "Tom shows" in which white performers, wearing black makeup, portrayed African Americans as lazy, overly sexual, foolish caricatures, existing only for the purpose of serving and amusing white people.

To be clear: we're talking about the origin of some of the worst stereotypes in our country.

I know that some commenters on the Internet have tried to equate Ms. Hough's heavy-handed use of bronzer with the makeup in the movie White Chicks, in which Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans portray FBI agents in whiteface drag. Sorry, no. There's no 400-year history in this country of enslaving and oppressing white people. There's no whiteface minstrel history that has created deeply embedded racial stereotypes.

In a lot of ways, my kids are sheltered from the realities of racism and prejudice in our country. We live in a diverse community, and they're growing up with friends and classmates of all different backgrounds. My kids are rarely exposed to racism. But there are still plenty of opportunities to explain to them the multitude of ways that racism has affected our country, and the work that is still to be done.

Going to vote next week? Explain to your kids that even though even though African Americans were granted the right to vote in 1870, lots of people worked really hard to keep them from voting, in the form of violence, poll taxes, and literacy tests that white people didn't have to take. It wasn't until the 1960s that federal laws were put into place that prevented states and towns from doing that.

Or maybe the next time you're chuckling over one of George Takei's Facebook posts, take a minute to tell your kids that Mr. Takei spent part of his childhood behind barbed wire in an internment camp right here in the U.S. during World War II.

And then there's Julianne Hough, giving us all an excellent opportunity to talk to our kids about where stereotypes come from and why blackface is not okay.

- By Joslyn Gray

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