Before I saw those pictures of her online Monday morning I didn’t know who Julianne Hough was. Even after Googling her, I’m still not entirely sure. Ballroom dancer and country music singer? Which is it, Julianne, did you have a hit song or were you just on Dancing With the Stars? In any case, this weekend Julianne learned an important lesson in the life of the demi-celebrity, which is that there’s a downside to being constantly photographed: when you screw up—say, by donning blackface to dress as your favorite Orange is the New Black character—everybody sees it. Next thing you know, people on Twitter are calling you racist and bloggers are questioning your professional accomplishments. Who has time for that? Not Julianne Hough, who no doubt has a voice and/or samba lesson to get to.
I believe Hough’s sad, bewildered apology for her mistake was sincere. As a person of color, I don’t feel angry about her tasteless Halloween getup, I just feel sort of confused. I don’t think she chose the costume with conscious racist intent, but nonetheless, she chose it, and in doing so voluntarily transgressed one of the most clearly articulated rules of American race relations: white people don’t get to wear blackface, ever. Not ironically, not humorously, not in homage (sorry, Julianne). Yet it’s almost an annual ritual, this public shaming of blindsided whites who, despite mountains of available evidence showing that blackface is a punishable offense, at some point in mid-October just shrug their shoulders and decide to go for it.
White people: this is such an easy mistake to avoid. Your choice of Halloween costume is as silly and inconsequential as it gets, whereas defying such a culturally significant prohibition will always be extremely consequential. So—besides a willful blindness to some pretty basic facts of American history—why all the unforced errors? I’m not talking about the racists who knowingly use blackface to demean. Those people are gross, but at least I understand their motives. What’s bizarre is that the mild-mannered, well-intentioned Julianne Houghs of the world can be so clueless in their persistent attachment to a behavior that is at once so trivial and so serious.
From “Liberty for All” — Created by Julio Salgado and written by Tina Vasquez.
As I was puzzling this out, I was reminded of a moment earlier this year when another well-intentioned person got in hot water for pointlessly breaking a rule he should have known better than to mess with.
Remember back in April when President Obama straight up called California Attorney General Kamala Harris a hottie at a fundraiser? Yeah, that was perplexing. Perplexing because Obama has been a staunch public champion of women’s rights, and doubly so because he had already gotten in trouble once for similarly patronizing behavior, so there’s no way he didn’t understand what he was doing. But he did it anyway, and suffered the fallout (he at least had the good grace not to act surprised).
Let me pause to clarify that I’m not saying that wearing blackface and calling a colleague hot are identical acts, or perfectly analogous. But I think some of the same social dynamics are at play in both cases. Why was Obama willing to risk public censure—not to mention the ire of the all-important “women’s vote”—to do something so meaningless as bestow a gratuitous compliment? And why, moreover, do men so zealously defend the right to say those things, inevitably telling women to chill out or “take a compliment” when we explain, for the fifty-millionth time, that we’d really prefer not to have our looks assessed in a professional context? If it’s such a minor thing, dudes, then why don’t you just stop it?
The conclusion I reached after Kamala-gate was that as silly or unimportant as such incidents may seem, they are in fact a very public exercise of social power. Not symbolic power, either—actual power, exerted in real time. The power to diminish a woman’s accomplishments and reduce her to her looks. What makes this kind of behavior so hard to confront, let alone combat, is that the people using their power this way often honestly don’t recognize what they’re doing, and they don’t believe you when you point it out.
So every October, when someone inevitably pops up in blackface and critics call them out, there’s always a small but indignant chorus of voices, like this one on Thought Catalog, who can’t see what all the fuss is about. Halloween’s a game and costumes mean nothing, so can’t we all just chill and have some good old-fashioned blackface fun? But take a moment to consider why wearing blackface, or appropriating any ethnic identity, is so alluring. People want to feel the freedom of being someone else, existing in a magical space where real-life roles don’t matter and history is suspended. But our history was bloody and the damage it caused is still playing out today, so suspending that reality, even for a night, is a hazardous game.
I don’t think Julianne Hough set out to offend people of color, or Uzo Aduba, the actress who actually plays Crazy Eyes and who is actually black. She just really, really wanted to wear that costume, wanted it enough to silence the whispers she must have heard deep down, warning her that this might not end well. She wanted, just for a night, to rat her hair and darken her skin, to slide into that orange jumpsuit and claim a part of that alien experience as her own, all while staying safely hidden behind the cultural power that allowed her to play at oppression that way.
Power is delicious. Exercising power is pleasurable. In the moment when we’re making the choice to wield power, what matters to us is that power feels good, and when something makes us feel good we’ll always want to do it again—and we’ll resist if people try to stop us. Which is why a certain blonde singer/actress/ballroom dancer is having a very hard week, and why she may never truly understand why.