There’s no doubt that most of the time blackface is used these days, it’s intended to offend or at least provoke. This Alas, A Blog post where white pee-wee football fans dressed in blackface to taunt their black opponents would be an example of that sort of thing.
But what about this picture of Kate Moss?
The commenters on the Alas post all seem to agree that the picture is also offensive. To me, the picture is saying we’re all humans, so we should help our brothers and sisters suffering from AIDS in Africa. It doesn’t look like an old-fashioned minstrel show, it looks like an attractive, dark woman. The straight hair (and the fact that it’s obviously Kate Moss) is the only clue that this is a white woman painted black. Clearly in the context of a special magazine issue attempting to draw attention to AIDS in Africa, there’s no intention to offend.
There’s certainly no way the same message could have been conveyed with a black model, as some commenters seem to suggest. Perhaps Africans are offended more at the idea of being represented by druggie loser Kate Moss than at this particular application of blackface, but the response to me seems more visceral: Anyone in blackface, ever, is offensive. Even the Spike Lee film Bamboozled was widely criticized for portraying blackface as “funny” (the point there was to make us laugh and then think about why we’re laughing, and I think it was done masterfully).
There’s no doubt that the selection of blackface and Kate Moss for the Independent’s cover was intended to be provocative, but is it offensive? If so, is it offensive simply because of the fact of blackface, or because of poor execution? Could this statement have been made in a way that didn’t offend? Or, is blackface simply always bad?
In Bamboozled, Spike Lee gives us glimpses of actors from the past performing in blackface, including a particularly disturbing image of Judy Garland equating blackness with ugliness. The Independent’s cover is a long way from that sentiment, but I suppose, for some people, it evokes that sentiment. What I’m still not sure of, finally, is if that’s necessarily a bad thing.