Many years ago, when I was in my mid-20’s I dressed as Aunt Jemima for a Halloween party. I donned a red gingham dress and crisp white apron, tied a kerchief around my head and sallied forth for an evening of revelry.
Oh, and as much as I’d love to forget this part, I also painted my face and arms black. Yes, I went to a party wearing black face.
I had no idea what a horrible stereotype I was perpetuating. I didn’t know the history of white actors portraying black characters as lazy and bumbling. No one at the party found my costume offensive, but then again, they were all white, just like me. We didn’t know any better; although, we probably should have. Ignorance really was no excuse.
Fast forward a few years to a conversation with an African American colleague. Halloween was approaching and the school kids we taught were giggling on the playground about their planned costumes. I told my friend that I’d once dressed as Aunt Jemima, thinking she’d find it funny. She did not find it remotely funny. This wonderful woman who I admired so much quickly and firmly set me straight. If we hadn’t ended the interaction with a hug I’d have worried that our friendship was over.
I called her that night and thanked her for enlightening me. She said, “Now that you know better, make sure you do better.”
I’ve never forgotten that, and have done my level best since then to do better in all things. I don’t always succeed, I know. I was raised with many tired, racist tropes that I didn’t even recognize as such until they were brought to my attention.
When NBC talk show host, Megyn Kelly claimed on her morning show this week that she didn’t think wearing black face was racist, I thought, “Honey, you’re about to know better. Now, will you do better? We shall see.