Thursday, January 17, 2008

Against sexists in “Blackface”

by Curtis E. Hinkle
© 2008
Translated and adapted from the French
French available at:

Video depicting blackface performances and iconography and the implications of the commercialization of such stereotypes

Changing one’s body does not necessarily change the identity of the individual in the body. This concept is essential to intersex activism. Otherwise, early surgical interventions on intersex infants would be easier to justify and rationalize.

Studying intersex in an academic setting does not change one’s identity either.

I would like to briefly discuss certain sexist tendencies that I do not personally like and I see a lot of commonalities between these particular sexist tendencies and certain elements from the racist history of the United States involving the tradition of performing in blackface.

I often see intersections between the struggles against racism and sexism. Those who are intersexed, victims of a brutal sexist system which often robs us of both our body and our identity, often need to be aware of the risks of sexist movements and their appropriation of our own visibility because there are many risks involved in our struggle for visibility in a world where we are not allowed to exist as human beings with full human rights.

This was true of African American slaves also. There were people who felt they had only the best of intentions who ultimately ended up creating some of the most damaging racist elements of American culture which did not help end racism despite all their good intentions. They actually reinforced the very slavery of the individuals they were trying to help by elaborating an artistic representation of stereotypes which are still very deeply rooted in the American consciousness. Images, theatrical performances, and music are extremely effective forms of communication and almost all propaganda is reinforced by an arsenal of iconographic representations which serve to embed the message more concretely than words alone can.

It is important to point out that I am specifically referring to artistic, academic and exhibitionistic iconographies which are focused on the “freak” body of intersex people and not the personal choices of intersex people themselves concerning their own clothing, what aspects of their own appearance they which to emphasize in a more positive manner or their own conceptualization of the intersexuality. I am specifically limiting this comparison to performances and other iconographic representations, both artistic and academic, which are intended to help those concerned, the intersexed.

“Performers with their faces blackened with burnt cork or blackface started appearing on the American stage towards the end of the 17th Century; they usually represented servants whose role was only to provide a brief moment of comic relief [1] with the intention nevertheless to make people laugh by mimicking the “Blacks of the Plantation”. It is important to note that the birthplace of the blackface minstrels was not the Deep South but the abolitionist North.” [2]

People often mistakenly believe that blackface performances have their roots in the Deep South of the United States. “In 1922 there were still serious debates in the pages of the New York Herald about who were the best actors depicting Black people, Whites or Blacks themselves. And we must remember that the minstrel was born in the anti-slavery environment of the North in the most sophisticated and most cosmopolitan city of America.” [3]

Those who started doing these performances were White people who wanted to help slaves and their ideas about Blacks were that they were content, obliging and musical, etc. They started performing in blackface but what they actually ended up doing was the commercialization and marketing of stereotypes intended primarily for the White public who were the consumers of the productions and it was the White public which controlled the market. Ultimately, African Americans themselves started performing in blackface in order to present their own talent to a public which was overwhelmingly White: a reinforcement of their own invisibility.

In my opinion, the same mechanisms are in play when a person enlarges their clitoris and becomes exhibitionistic and starts talking about intersex issues as if their choice for clitoral enlargement somehow helps them understand intersex issues. The same mechanisms are in play when an academic feels she has the right to help us without even consulting us and who writes protocols full of demeaning terms with an abject focus on genetic defects. These are all stereotypes, whether artistic or academically generated. The important point is that they are NOT generated for and by the people most directly affected, the intersexed themselves.

No matter how much the Whites wanted to help, putting on blackface and speaking for Blacks did not make them Black. It was racist. The same applies to certain help from non-intersexed people. No matter what they do, they are not intersexed and their help often ends up simply reinforcing the iconography of stereotypes already prevalent for intersexed people. Sexism sells just as racism does because the consumers who control the market and the production of stereotypical images, pathological diagnoses, etc. are not us. It is them.


[2] D'Emett Miller à Eminem : Chanteurs blancs, coeurs noirs ?

[3] Blackface :au confluent des voix mortes par Nick Tosches p. 19
Éditions Allia, Paris, 2003.