Cheerleader Blackface: The Cultural Function of Pretend Shock

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

Colourface fatigue, I haz it.  Who here is tired of reading about blackface? Because I sure am tired of writing about it. And at this point I don’t know what more there is to say.

Well, come to think of it, there was never much to say in the first place.  Because here we tend to deal more in the subtle nuances of racism; when something is as out and out wrong as painting yourself black for a lark, you don’t need us to deconstruct it for you.

But I ask this: why is a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who colourfaced it up as Lil Wayne for Halloween causing so much of a ruckus? It might just be because I live in Texas, but all day Monday I heard reports about white cheerleader Whitney Isleib and her poor choice of costume.  The team even received a request from a Texas media outlet for an interview.

News, by definition is (among other things): a person, thing, or event considered as a choice subject for journalistic treatment; newsworthy material. This is pretty elementary: there has to be something spectacular about your behaviour for it to make headlines.  Simply behaving badly or cluelessly – which Isleib most certainly was – is not enough to get you in the news.  You have to behave badly in some kind of unusual way.

But colourface is not unusual. It is reprehensible and grotesque, but it’s not unusual. Who here was out and about on Halloween, and saw some colourface? *raises hand*

So. Why the attention for Isleib’s dressup? Yes, Isleib is sort of a public figure. But that’s just it: she’s only sort of a public figure. I can’t imagine her getting this much attention for anything else.  Isleib’s situation is markedly different from biracial colourface on ANTM, Vogue painting white supermodel Lara Stone black, and Harry Connick Jr putting his foot down at Australian blackface.  These are all examples of public performances of blackface.  Isleib on the other hand was at a private party. Why is this news? Why is it even local Texas news?

A minute ago, I said that in order to get on the news, you have to behave badly in some kind of unusual way.  I should correct that: you have to behave badly in some kind of way that is perceived to be unusual.  Or further, you have to behave badly in some kind of way that we like to perceive as unusual – regardless of the truth.

Partly Isleib is news because it’s an amusing “quirky” newspiece.  Uh oh! Another example of Facebook Fail! And partly Isleib is news because there are still some lucky souls who think that blackface is unusual – clearly they haven’t been following the colourface epidemic.

But I do think that there is something deeper here than just a slow news day.  What do we get out of perceiving Isleib’s blackface to be newsworthy or shocking?  What cultural function does shock fulfill?

Consider this: violence against women is incredibly common, yet when a serial killer kills multiple women, media outlets go to town.  Cases get blown up, and the 24-hour news cycle analyses every grisly detail of an individual case – instead of turning an eye to the broader culture that engenders such violence. And people react with shock and horror – How could this happen here? Can you believe this? – to something that happens every single day, something that is terrifyingly ordinary.  Definitely we should report terrible murders.  But acting shocked about them is an inappropriate response when violence is such a way of life for us.  There is something very hypocritical about shock.

As a culture, we go out of our way to express shocked disapproval, when we want to demonstrate distance between ourselves and some extreme act of hatred.  It’s a smokescreen that masks the hatred we carry out everyday.

As a culture, we pay attention to the most heinous – or most clueless – examples of patriarchy and racism in order to ignore the daily insidiousness of oppression and suffering.

We pay attention to Isleib’s stupidly ordinary costume because it allows us to pretend that blackface and all its disturbing connotations are out of the ordinary.  But they’re not.  While publicly we feign surprise, on anonymous internet message boards people are talking about how awesome Isleib’s costume is.

So again. I’m not saying that what Isleib did is no big deal.  It’s just that I hate that it’s news.

Incidentally since the writing of this article, some of the news pieces I was looking at of Isleib have disappeared. If you enter “dallas cowboys cheerleader blackface” into Google News, the service tells you that there are 14 related articles. But when you click “More”, there are only 3. Damage control?