Last night’s season premiere of The Real Housewives of New York was everything the previews had promised: lots of drama, lots of alcohol, and lots of friendships teetering on the brink of destruction. There was even some goodwill thrown in with a segment devoted to Bethenny Frankel’s work helping the people in Puerto Rico affected by the hurricane and convincing her counterparts to do the same.
But those facets—while entertaining and, at times, touching—weren’t what stood out in this particular episode. While Dorinda Medley’s Halloween party is predictably disastrous and full of petty, booze-fueled arguments between characters, it also provides a scene for Luann de Lesseps, now feeling liberated after her divorce from Tom D’Agostino, to channel these newfound feelings into a Diana Ross costume that fails miserably.
Naturally, Luann immediately received backlash for wearing what many believe to be blackface. (Her skin is noticeably darker than her natural skin tone due to bronzer.)
During the party, her castmate Carole Radziwill even remarked, “Luann’s costume is so disrespectful. I think she’s tone-deaf when it comes to cultural stereotypes.” People on social media have also spoken out:
OMG THEY SAID LUANN GOT DIVORCED, ARRESTED AND CHARGED WITH A FELONY BUT THEY DIDNT WARN US ABOUT THE BLACKFACE?!?!?!!!?? #rhony
— brianna4evr (@briannalogan30) April 5, 2018
— S-A.Delight.To.Read-Jenkins (@essayjenkins) April 5, 2018
.@CountessLuann Diana Ross doesn't approve of your blackface, and her hair was never that F*cking tacky. Luann, your pathetic display and attempt for attention was low-class and lacked elegance and flair. #RHONYC pic.twitter.com/eOAGRUlXHz
— Janell8ItAll (@LiveLoveLifeDo) April 5, 2018
Later, on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, de Lesseps attempted to justify her choice. “I’m horrified, meaning I never meant to hurt anybody’s feelings,” she said. “I love Diana Ross, and I totally respect Diana Ross. It was really kind of a tribute to her.” Luann claimed that her skin was darker due to the bronzer she applied and that she would never wear blackface.
But this excuse just doesn’t cut it: De Lesseps used makeup to visibly darken her skin in an attempt to look like a black person, and therefore was in blackface. She also donned an unbelievably bad afro wig that in no way shape or form resembled Diana Ross’s classic curls—it was just a parody of black hair. Blackness is not the equivalent of smearing oneself with bronzer and wearing a ghastly wig.
It’s disturbing because, historically speaking, blackface is about robbing black people of their rights as well as their humanity. It dates back to minstrel shows in the mid- to late 1800s, when white actors would paint their face with black grease to depict slaves and free black people onstage. Their portrayals mocked and degraded black people while reinforcing our perceived inferiority. They did this through caricatures, such as the Mammy, Jezebel, Uncle Tom, and Buck—stereotypes that still haunt black people today. The term “Jim Crow,” which was used to label a number of antiblack segregation laws in from the nineteenth century to 1965, is thought to come from a 1832 blackface caricature skit by actor Thomas D. Rice.
But despite the disturbing history of blackface, we’ve seen white celebrities wear it time and time again without regret or repercussion. Joni Mitchell wore blackface on the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Ted Danson thought it was OK to be in blackface while roasting Whoopi Goldberg at the Friar’s Club. Julianne Hough wore blackface one Halloween when she dressed up as Uzo Aduba’s ‘Crazy Eyes’ character from Orange Is the New Black. Rachel Dolezal thought she could rid herself of whiteness completely with the use of dark makeup and questionable weaves. Then there’s the rise of digital blackface, when black people are used as reaction GIFs by white and nonblack people to adapt black personas in online spaces.
Which brings me back to de Lesseps. What her and so many (white) people like her don’t seem to grasp is a simple concept that apparently needs to be repeated over and over again. So pay attention: If you ever feel the need to pay homage or find humor by using black people as costumes don’t. Just…don’t.
Candace McDuffie is a Boston-based journalist and teacher. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Vibe, and Racked.
Ak Bay Stroke Team