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One-third of Americans say blackface for Halloween can be OK, Pew study finds

NBC News logo NBC News 2/11/2019 Erik Ortiz
Ralph Northam wearing a suit and tie: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference in Richmond on Feb. 2, 2019. © Alex Edelman Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference in Richmond on Feb. 2, 2019.

About one-third of Americans believe wearing blackface for Halloween is always or sometimes acceptable, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday.

The survey was mostly conducted before a racist picture surfaced this month on Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page from 1984 showing a man in blackface and a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Northam, a Democratic, denied that he was one of the two men in the photograph, but admitted to using dark shoe polish that same year to dress up as the singer Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

Pew polled nearly 5,600 respondents and also found that:

  • While 39 percent of white adults believe blackface for Halloween can be acceptable, about 19 percent of black adults and 28 percent of Hispanics do as well.
  • About 41 percent of white adults ages 18 to 29 say blackface is never acceptable — the highest of any age bracket.
  • More Republican or Republican-leaning adults — 40 percent — say wearing another culture's traditional dress for Halloween is "always acceptable," compared with 17 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning adults.

Pew Research said the survey was done as part of a larger study on race, ethnicity and identity to be released later this year.

The results don't completely surprise Khalid el-Hakim, the founder of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, which includes artifacts and historical lessons on the issue.

El-Hakim said that black people who don't find blackface offensive probably don't know "the historical context of what blackface is and how there's been a tradition in this country of it. You still see it in college campuses all the time."

Former NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly had to apologize last October after she questioned why it is considered racist for white people to wear blackface on Halloween. "The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep," she said in her apology, before ultimately parting ways with the network.

The legacy of white people darkening their faces grew out of the Civil War, el-Hakim said, and was featured most famously in the 1915 silent film, "The Birth of a Nation," to portray black people as moral degenerates who threatened white culture.

Blackface continued to be used in music and stage performances to stereotype African-Americans, using exaggerated physical features to hit home a type of "propaganda that went very, very deep," he added.

A less subtle form of blackface continues in other ways, el-Hakim said, like when beauty companies push skin bleaching creams, fashion houses sell offensive clothing or people throw parties that appropriate a culture.

He said he went to a bar in northern Michigan a few years ago during Halloween in which the all-white crowd wasn't in blackface but dressed in a "pimps and hoes" theme that included music and dress from black culture.

"How can we move on from racism as a society if people are still blackening their faces or mocking a whole group?" he asked.

Korey Garibaldi, an assistant professor in the University of Notre Dame's department of American studies, said the racial tumult in Virginia has helped to contextualize the issue of blackface for his students, and gotten them to at least think about how such images can be a liability for their own professional futures.

He paralleled this current racial reckoning surrounding blackface to the #MeToo movement and a greater understanding that darkening one's skin for entertainment should be questioned.

"Even if the governor of Virginia won't take personal responsibility for the picture on his yearbook page, he does on some level have a clear understanding that appearing with blackface is not something that he wants as part of his legacy," Garibaldi said. "So the challenge is how do we articulate these things, take responsibility and sort of fairly challenge white supremacist culture without alienating people."

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