There's a consensus in the United States of America that the wearing of blackface is a racist act. It's something you just don't do, and if you do it you can expect to be rightly pilloried. For American Indians, it's often frustrating that racism toward Native Americans that feels very overt is somehow harder for the mainstream to detect.
With some ill-advised costume choices, and a thoroughly unapologetic apology, a New York State Assemblyman is doing his part to connect the dots.
Dov Hikind of Brooklyn is being rightly pilloried for hosting a Purim party wearing blackface. Costume parties are a tradition of the Jewish celebration of Purim, and Hikind had decided to host his in the costume of "basketball player," which necessitated an orange jersey-ish garment, an afro wig and dark makeup.
Hikind's getup earned him plenty of press. His initial response was a shrug of acknowledgement in a post to his blog entitled "It's Purim. People Dress Up." "I am intrigued that anyone who understands Purim—or for that matter understands me—would have a problem with this," he wrote. "This is political correctness to the absurd." Hikind was fixated on the idea that the costume only seemed racist because people didn't understand Purim. Also on Monday he held a news conference to address the criticism — but didn't. He explained again that costumes are part of the Purim celebration. (The "it's not racist, it's a costume" argument is one Natives hear every Halloween.) In addition to explaining what a costume is, he offered a classic first-draft non-apology: "Anyone who was offended — I'm sorry that they were offended, that was not the intention."
African Americans have plenty of cause to be incensed by Hikind's ignorance — but so too do American Indians. On Monday, when Hikind was still trying to defend himself with the "political correctness to the absurd" argument, he told a New York Times reporter that the outcry was making him rethink his plans for next year's Purim.
"Next year I was thinking I’d be an Indian," he said. "But you know, I’ve changed my mind about that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Somebody will be offended."
Of course, it's hard to know whether (or to what extent) he was joking about dressing as an Indian. (It is also hard to know exactly which kind of Indian he had in mind, but that's beside the point.) If he didn't know blackface was a no-no, there is really no telling how unenlightened his thinking may be when it comes to Native stereotypes. Many have seen a unique irony that it is Hikind who would be in this position — Hikind is well known as a zealous, perhaps overzealous, defender of the Jewish community against anti-Semitism or perceived anti-Semitism.
"Dov Hikind is the first person who will holler about something when he thinks or hears a whisper that it might be anti-Semitic," said Assembly member Annette Robinson, according to the Wall Street Journal, "but does not recognize something is disrespectful to another community."