Al Roker picked a delightful costume to wear on the Halloween episode of the Today Show yesterday. America’s favorite weatherman dressed up as Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown from the Back to the Future trilogy in a white “mad scientist” wig and lab coat. Fellow meteorologist Dylan Dreyer went as Marty McFly, and the duo hung out in an actual Delorean used in the movie, signed by the original cast.
What some racists on Twitter picked up on is that (gasp) Christopher Lloyd, who played Doc Brown in the trilogy, is white, while Roker, obviously, is black. And because self-righteous white people love pointing out hypocrisy (or what they believe constitutes hypocrisy), these people wasted no time lambasting Roker for dressing up as a character of another race a week after Megyn Kelly went down in flames for wondering aloud why blackface was such a big deal.
Frankly, I commend Roker for what may be a brilliant troll. You see, the whole Kelly blackface controversy hinges on a couple of facts: a lot of Americans don’t know the literal definition of blackface, and even fewer understand the super racist history behind minstrelsy.
For the sake of clarity, blackface means literally darkening your skin with makeup (in the olden days, they used burnt cork), exaggerating your eyes and lips so you resemble an offensive cartoon of a black person. White entertainers started doing this in the early 1800s, before the Civil War, in traveling song and dance “minstrel” shows. These were pretty abominable examples of cultural appropriation; the white performers stole slave songs, which popularized African-American culture and music with mainstream audiences, but they played up ignorant stereotypes, portraying blackface characters as dumb, buffoonish, lazy, and superstitious.
The Today Show tried explaining this to Kelly and her viewers by inviting black journalists Roland Martin and Amy Holmes on the show for a frank discussion about blackface and institutional racism. Their message was clear: darkening your skin is never okay (because of aforementioned old-timey racists), but dressing up as a character of another race is usually fine, as long as the character’s race isn’t part of the costume. (There’s also an element of common sense and decency: if your costume is poking fun at someone’s physical attributes, it’s almost definitely not okay. If you’re someone with a history of racist words and actions, like Kelly, then no, black Americans don’t really want you making their humanity a costume.)
Roker deciding to dress up as a lovable white character was kind of genius, because he was demonstrating exactly how to put these guidelines into practice. He didn’t change the color of his skin. Doc Brown may have been played by a white man, but nothing about his character dictates he has to be white. He’s a kooky, time-traveling scientist. His character is signified by wild hair, a lab coat, maybe some goggles and gadgetry. If Back to the Future was rebooted today, I like to think that actors of all ethnicities would be considered for the role.
This underscores why we need more superheroes, Disney princesses, pop stars, spooky monsters, and mad geniuses of all walks of life, ethnicities, gender expressions, and body types. If the people we wanted to emulate more accurately reflected more of us, not only would there be more options for everybody, these conversations may also be less fraught. I’m a cheesy person, but I want to live in a world where little white boys can be President Obama, and Muslim girls can be Wonder Woman, and queer teens can be Elvis or Ariana Grande, and Heidi Klum can be a goddamn ogre if she wants to be.
Halloween is all about trying on another persona and stepping outside of yourself for a day. Yes, it has to do with altering your appearance to look like someone or something you’re not. The difference lies in intent and execution: are you celebrating someone or dehumanizing them? And as a strict rule of thumb, never, ever, under any circumstances darken your face for a costume. Just don't.
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