More Blackface Ethics From The Ethics Alarms Double Standards Files: The Zulu Club Parade

In other threads around the blog, I have argued that the politically correct position against black make-up on a non-black individual, which is that it is the equivalent of “blackface” and thus racist per se regardless of the intent or purpose of the wearer or how it is reasonable perceived by others, is the declaration of a taboo rather than a logical argument. We have reached a similar taboo state with the use of the term “nigger” (and I have just violated that taboo by printing the word.) Teachers and professors have been punished for expressly employing the word to discuss racist uses of the word in other contexts. This is obviously bats—such instructors are not engaging in racist speech or intending to do so—but that is how taboos work. It’s like saying “Niagara Falls” in the old vaudeville skit.

Amusingly—hypocritical searches for secret exits when one is hoisted on one’s own petard amuses me—the fact that two Democrats in Virginia were found to have once worn black make-up has set off new safaris on the Left to find  a way to define blackface so the taboo approach doesn’t hurt the good people—you know, anyone who isn’t a conservative or a Republican. Now harsh focus has fallen on a black group that has used blackface for over a century.

The Zulu parade is staged on Mardi Gras by the New Orleans African-American philanthropic and social club. The Zulu Club’s paraders, both black and white, wear blackface and grass skirts, a tradition that began in 1909. How is the Zulu Club’s fun and games different from Gov. Ralph Northam wearing blackface to imitate Michael Jackson—in a nice way, of course?

As far back as 1956, when an NAACP officer criticized the parade’s dress-up,  the Zulu tradition has been controversial.  “It’s always made me cringe,” wrote Jarvis DeBerry, a columnist with the Times-Picayune newspaper on Twitter. “That said, they swear it’s satire.” What? How is THAT a defense? The original blackface was satire, and it was satirizing blacks. Kim Coleman, an African-American woman who is curator of the city’s McKenna Museum of African-American Art, was interviewed by the New York Times and told the paper that she was  offended by “the sight of white people in blackface.” Does that mean black people wearing blackface is OK, because it satirizes white racists satirizing blacks? I presume she knows that black performers during Jim Crow sometimes had to wear blackface to be allowed on stage. That image isn’t disgusting?

Here’s the Times, spinning, spinning:

This particular, and peculiar, blackface debate is at once familiar and different, whirled into some other thing by the complicated semiotic daiquiri machine that is New Orleans — and by the taboo-busting spirit of its carnival season….But Mardi Gras is also about a radical suspension of seriousness. It was in that spirit that Sylvester Francis, 72, the founder of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which displays Mardi Gras Indian suits and other exuberant expressions of black Mardi Gras traditions, defended Zulu this week. “It’s carnival. Do what you wanna. Be what you wanna,” said Mr. Francis, who is black. “Even the governor,” he added, referring to Mr. Northam, “if he wants to wear blackface that one day, nobody would care.”

Right. Nobody would care except the people who saw a photograph of the black-faced governor in his yearbook, or on Instagram. Then he would be run out of office on a rail, at least if he was a Republican, unlike Ralph Northam.

I know this hurts those addicted to manipulating double standards for political gain, but there are only two rational, fair and coherent ways to regard blackface today. Either it is  a cultural taboo that now means “Blacks are inferior and should be ridiculed” no matter who wears the blackface or why, or it is a form of make-up that is offensive when used to denigrate blacks, but can be  benign and justifiable in the proper context.  If the Zulu Club gets a pass for “satire,” then Governor Northam has to get a pass for “wanting to dress up like Michael Jackson so he could do the moonwalk.” “Blackface is always offensive, except on one day in New Orleans when members of the Zulu Club use it” makes no sense if we have taken the taboo route.

The Times article ends,

Kim Vaz-Deville, an associate dean at Xavier University of Louisiana…predicted that the new debates would have little effect on the club, whose king proclaims each year that citizens shall endeavor to make merry and “not confuse Mardi Gras with other issues.” “I think Zulu’s going to party like Zulu always parties,” she said.

But it’s okay to confuse black make-up used innocently in a student talent show 30 years ago with racial discrimination in 2019, especially if the blackface was employed by a Republican and not a Democrat, because blackface is always racist. Well, almost always. Always, I surmise, when it can be used as a political gotcha! and to exacerbate the racial divide. Unless it’s “satire.” By the good people.

By the way, in researching an upcoming article about Canada Lee, a ground-breaking African American actor and civil rights advocate, I learned that he became the black first actor to play a white character on Broadway.  To pull it off, Lee used a white paste make-up.

4 thoughts on “More Blackface Ethics From The Ethics Alarms Double Standards Files: The Zulu Club Parade

  1. The current notion of blackface needs a trademark symbol or something because it is not blackface, the racist theatrical style meant to satirize and denigrate black people.

    But, the politically correct bunch needs to wipe away history to control people.

    On that note, 20-30 years back, a friend of mine showed up at a Halloween party, made up to look like Chef from South Park, Black make-up, chocolate salty balls, the whole bit.

    That was not blackface, any more than the party where he showed up as Homer Simpson was yello-face


  2. “the complicated semiotic daiquiri machine that is New Orleans”

    Takes my breath away. Is there a spin cycle on daiquiri machines? What is a daiquiri machine? Do they have them in the NYT writers’ lounge? The editorial offices? I had to look up “semiotic.”

    Reminds me of one of my least favorite rationalization/hipster brush off: “It’s complicated.” I guess the appropriate response would be “Whatever.”

  3. Once upon a time many years ago, I played the father in The Heiress. To summarize for those unfamiliar, father caught pneumonia and eventually, between acts two and three, died. In order to make it look like the disease was progressing, I used progressively lighter facial make-up with dark circles around my eyes. Would this make me racist? Zombies have rights, too, ya’ know.

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