Blackface and Klan costumes? Have we learned nothing?

If you’ve ever known someone who survived World War II in Europe, you know they don’t always find humor in jokes about Hitler or the holocaust or anything to do with Nazis. I am familiar with one such person who refused to watch Hogan’s Heroes for that reason.

After the Ku Klux Klan burned this cross in front of a Mississippi Delta Freedom House, a civil rights worker transformed it with a painted message.

After the Ku Klux Klan burned this cross in front of a Mississippi Delta Freedom House, a civil rights worker transformed it with a painted message.

That attitude is understandable. My mother survived years of Nazi occupation in Norway as a teenager, and she didn’t find anything particularly funny about any of it.

It also helps me understand why the idea of white people dressing in blackface or as Ku Klux Klan members is so offensive.

Minstrel shows used to be staples of entertainment in this country, but they were staples of white entertainment, and they reinforced unfair and false stereotypes while subtly promoting white supremacy.

The Ku Klux Klan was not subtle. It lynched black people and enforced white rule through intimidation, and it continues to exist in a milder, but no less overt, form . There is nothing funny about either of these things.

So why can’t we ever seem to get past this as a nation?

I understand, on one level, how two high school students in Cache County, Utah might not have understood all this at Halloween. Young people lack mature judgment skills.  According to a news report on KSL, one of the students is white and the other is black. Maybe they thought dressing in Klan robes would have a certain ironic twist to it that might be seen as funny.

What I don’t understand is why a parent helped them with the costumes without being mature and sensitive enough to talk them out of the idea. Both students were suspended for a day by a quick-acting principal who then met with the boys and their parents.

I also don’t understand why Julianne Hough wasn’t smart enough to understand that it would be wrong to come in blackface to a party in Beverley Hills. According to CBS News, she ended up apologizing on Twitter, saying, “It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way.”

Really? How could she not have known such a thing would be offensive?

Or what about the two guys in Florida who dressed as George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, with the Trayvon character in blackface and wearing a shirt with a bullet hole and fake blood? The website thesmokinggun.com described them as unrepentant.

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And what about this mother in Virginia who dressed her 7-year-old boy in a Klan outfit for Halloween?

“Unrepentant” doesn’t adequately describe her attitude. But she seems to reflect a somewhat common feeling that victims of violence and oppression need to lighten up, especially if their victimhood goes back a few generations, and that the scales aren’t fairly calibrated.

I often hear about how one side in this debate can joke about the other with impunity, or use labels and words the other side cannot.

These critics don’t understand power structures and the imbalances that come with generations of oppression.
It seemed like a bad Halloween for this kind of thing. The humorist and newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

It’s a line comedians understand is constantly moving. As a culture, the things we find funny in one generation are understood differently in the next as we come to understand each other better.

I like that principal in Cache County, who understood not to overreact but to make a point, and to educate.
No matter how many generations distance the living from things such as World War II or lynchings and Jim Crow laws, we cannot afford to minimize oppression and violence through the desensitizing force of humor. Swastikas and white hoods should never be funny.

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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