In case you missed the memo, blackface is back in the news and as offensive as it ever was. A year ago, makeup artists and beauty influencers were primarily being called out for using makeup to darken their skin and portray themselves as an entirely different race. In 2019, this racist imagery is still popping up.
Last week, Gucci apologized and recalled a balaclava sweater that looked eerily similar to blackface imagery. Meanwhile, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam admitted to and apologized for darkening his skin with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume in 1984.
This week, Katy Perry has apologized after fans spotted a pair of shoes that once again look way too much like a blackface cartoon to have made it through a final cut at any Katy Perry Collections meeting.
Katy Perry swiftly reacted to the backlash with an in-depth apology and an explanation for the true inspiration behind the shoe designs.
"The Rue and The Ora were part of a collection that was released last summer in 9 different colorways (black, blue, gold, graphite, lead, nude, pink, red, silver) and envisioned as a nod to modern art and surrealism," a statement from Perry reads.
"I was saddened when it was brought to my attention that it was being compared to painful images reminiscent of blackface. Our intention was never to inflict any pain. We have immediately removed them from katyperrycollections.com."
The shoes have since been removed from the official website as well as other retailers such as Dillard's, Nordstrom, and Lord & Taylor.
The tension on the internet is so thick right now that everyone should take a breather and consider a few different things ...
Before you go getting into Twitter feuds over this shoe — or any other racism controversy — take time to do your research and consider the nuance in all of this. Because this matter definitely isn't cut and dry.
First thing's first: What is the history of blackface exactly? And why is it racist?
I'm glad you asked. Blackface is the practice of white people coating their faces with black paint to mimic the look of black people. White actors in 19th-century minstrel shows would apply their literal black "faces" and put on plays that poked fun at how African Americans look, speak, walk, sing, talk, and more.
The creation of blackface-based comedy shows enforced stereotypes that painted black people as messy, clumsy, ignorant, and violent people who are incapable of being high-functioning citizens.
Those shows were also used to justify why black people were treated as second-rate citizens with minimal civil rights in real life. As white actors mocked us onstage, black people were being lynched, raped, beaten, and more off stage. That is why seeing blackface or anything similar to it in 2019 is so offensive and hurtful to people.
Does that mean anything with a black background and red lips is automatically racist?
The short answer is no. It's very possible that Katy Perry's shoes were genuinely an oversight. As pointed out in her statement, the shoes were available in several colors. One of them happened to be black, which is arguably the most common shoe color.
That said, Katy Perry and all other brands accused of blackface imagery are still responsible for such terrible oversights.
It's very plausible to create an offensive design without knowing it, but that's the problem. As a designer, you are supposed to know. Performing thorough research on your own designs isn't a hard ask. It's basic professionalism.
And companies who've been guilty of these oversights are also responsible for hiring diverse employees who can call out potentially offensive products such as this one.
The practice is no different than a brand developing a logo and doing research to make sure it isn't already copyrighted. All of this blackface mess seemingly stems from people who do not care enough to learn about a history that didn't negatively affect them — and companies that refuse to hire people from marginalized communities.
These blackface designs do more than drudge up a painful past.
They reveal just how inadequate and out of touch these brands are in the present. Simply put, brands need to do a better job of making sure that the roster of decision makers is truly diverse so their products and services aren't so ill-informed.
Fashion and beauty brands are happily throwing more black models on their runways, in ads, and on their Instagram pages, but they aren't allowing enough melanin into their boardrooms. And it shows.
I can't help but question who exactly is sitting at the decision-making table for these brands. Where were the black people? Were they all on lunch? Did they all call out sick on the exact day these ideas got the green light? How could these designs have passed through different levels of approval without a single black person pointing out how similar they are to blackface characters?
Let this be a PSA for all brands: Handle your melanin deficiency on the front end so you don't have to worry about the backlash later.