Minstrel shows were three act structures that were about racism, sexism, segregation, mockery and buffoonery.
At a deeper level, they were also about making up the participants’ faces—both Caucasian faces and African American faces—to obscure the lived, experienced pain of racism, sexism segregation, mockery and buffoonery.
Infantilization, stereotyping, vulgarity and defining deviancy as entertainment, were at the core of minstrel shows. Now, most minstrel shows following the American Civil War, declined in popularity among white audiences. Also, many blacks who had been slaves, and performers, in the minstrel shows, moved into the areas of circuses, vaudeville, variety shows and musical comedy.
Why even address this horrible piece of United States history?
For two reasons:
Many of us fail to talk about the issues of face, vanity and pride and how they are drivers for the seemingly never-ending vaudeville of conflicts in our lives—and the lives of other we know.
Many of us respond to conflicts in our lives with methods and choices that parallel the action and deeper message of minstrel shows.
Think about it.
We put on a “face” consisting of the caked on make-up of personal pride and vanity in an effort to avoid addressing conflicts (primarily ones between our values and other people’s values) and then head to work, school or church.
We are activated by people who are also hiding their own pain and we proceed to studiously dance around (another aspect of minstrel shows was dancing) the conflicts at hand around values that matter.
We use rhetorical techniques and communication tactics to accommodate outcomes and commodify results that we know are wrong (similar to the vicious racism and sexism that was applauded by the minstrel who audiences) and to try to walk away and remain feeling good.
When we finally talk about the conflicts in our work lives, but not in our home or family lives, we try to say that we have other’s best intentions in mind, which can sometimes come off to others in the dance of conflict as paternalism.
What’s the way out?
- Understand and acknowledge that loving confrontation and healthy assertiveness is not aggression or an attempt to “hurt the feelings” of the other party. Confrontation and assertiveness is sometimes preferable to avoidance and accommodation. However, many of us are uncomfortable because of our own conflict vanity, our image/face management and our lack of courage.
- Understand and acknowledge that feelings of shame and guilt are mostly in our heads and are driven by our fear-based responses. When fear kicks in we shame ourselves and others as a defense against the guilt around the knowledge that we “could have done more.” But as we mentioned before, courage has always been in short supply…
- Understand and acknowledge that risk and reassurance are an anathema to each other and we must pursue either one or the other, but not both. A person cannot take on the risk of moving forward to confront—in love, mind you—conflicts at home, at work or at church, while also seeking reassurance that the relationship will be saved in forms we are the most comfortable with, and that codifies what we believe, rather than capital “T” truth.
The popularity of minstrel shows with the American public declined after the American Civil War, but its imprint and impression remains everywhere in our entertainment, our music, our movies, and even our TV shows.
Hiding the pain of conflict under the caked on makeup of our tendency toward avoidance, our lack of courage, and our need for reassurance, and continuing to do the dance as a public and private show to preserve destructive, dysfunctional relationships, will leave imprints on our lives that will only get deeper, not shallower, over time.
-Peace Be With You All-
Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: firstname.lastname@example.org