At some point over the last few years I suddenly remembered I’ve actually done ‘blackface’ before. I was a teenager – I think 17 – at a school fancy dress event, with the whole grade and all the teachers out in the sun. It was the Irish countryside. We went as the guys from Cool Runnings, in a little cardboard sled.
Somehow, even as the kid of an anti-apartheid activist, I had no idea the history of blackface. I am not sure many around me did. But I know that if I were a public figure of some kind, that would not get me off the hook.
This is strange, in a way. We all admit – and I thoroughly agree – that blackface is wrong because of its history. In a perfect world, where it had not been used for such horrific and wicked purposes, we would unlikely think twice about it. Yet, for some reason, even though it would not be wrong without the history, you are still held accountable even if you didn’t know the history. Even if the history was 1000s of miles from where you landed up and no one ever told you about it. It is still said to reflect on your personal character, when there is no way it possibly could.
That 17-year-old didn’t intend harm, nor was her ignorance the result of some culpable failure to research. Bizarrely, I vaguely remember thinking – when my friends suggested the costume idea – that it might be racist to object to make-up, as it might suggest that there was something different about dressing up as person of colour compared to a person with any other appearance, and I was eager to emphasise that there wasn’t. In other words, I was acting on the assumption that there was no history behind it; that the ideal was already true. Because of that, I know this event says little about the heart or character of that 17-year-old, who quite simply wasn’t racist.
I’m all for reckonings, because I’m all for redemption. But the subject is important. Reckonings are for true and intentional evils. Things that uncover how actually, deeply crap the human heart can be. And I’ve done a lot of those things. I was needlessly guilt-tripping of an ex who had mistreated me, and for needlessly long. I once tried to tempt a boy to leave a girl, for my sake. I yelled a lot at my mother. I’ve been impossibly hypocritical. I’ve had petty, bitter, proud, and selfish moments of all sorts. All these things have context, sure. ‘Convincing explanations’. But I know that in each of them there was some part of my heart that was truly culpable. Something truly broken. So, late at night, these are the things I have cried about. The things that have racked me with guilt; sent me knocking at heaven’s gates, asking, like Paul, “Oh wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?”
I suppose it was just an odd realisation, thinking of the future, that this event, with no ill intent at all, no evil glistening in the heart – an event which I would easily have forgotten – would so plausibly be the one to invite widespread contempt, disqualify me from some pursuit, or paint an image of my current character. The disqualifying target – a racist 17 year old – simply doesn’t exist. Just a 17 year old who would likely feel unbearable guilt and remorse – I mean, unbearable, I had a serious issue with this – if she thought she’d caused someone grief.
Maybe someone in my future life will dislike me just enough to find strange satisfaction in discovering this thing I have no reason to hide. That makes me really sad. But whoever you are, unearther of my past, just know that I love you, I’m probably a worse person than you think, and you can ask me all about it.