Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Stupid Thing follow-up

So, I mentioned the white woman made up to look like a black woman from yesterday, and it vexed me for a little while. I'll be honest, I've never really understood what was so icky about blackface. You see the Al Jolsen stuff from time to time, or Eddie Cantor or Bugs Bunny in the makeup sometimes (I even recall seeing a movie where Shirley Temple wore blackface for a song, but I could be insane), and I understand that it's offensive to African Americans today, but I don't really know why.

Is it because it's perceived as mocking the black man? Is it because those originally in blackface were perpetuating racial stereotypes that aren't acceptable today? Or is it because in those days, blacks weren't allowed to perform, and the white man dressed up in this costume as a way to keep the black man in his place?

Of course, I'm one of those guys who thinks that somebody's intentions are the most important factor in whether people should be offended or not, but race is such an inflammatory issue that it's difficult to tell. I'm white, so I may not be able to understand by design. And it could be that people are okay with it as long as it's not a pitch-skin, huge wig, big red mouth kind of thing, like in the old minstrel shows.

After all, audiences laughed along when Robert Downey Jr. did his character in TROPIC THUNDER, and when Fred Armissen plays Barack Obama on "Saturday Night Live," nobody cries foul.

And when this performer came out last night and started up her song, I expected to hear howls of outrage, or at least snickers of "That ain't cool, man." But there was nothing. People seemed to be into it.

So maybe the problem is mine. Maybe I got offended on somebody else's behalf, that thing I complain about other people doing all the time, with a clenched jaw and fists of both hands. Say it with me, folks: I've become what I most despise.

Rish "Greenface" Outfield


Anonymous said...

What's troubling about blackface is the entire history of it. It isn't just that people of one race are imitating another. The blackface minstrel shows used exaggerated "black" behaviors to produce humiliating comedy. There's more information about the issue on the wikipedia page:

I believe that racial makeup and blackface are different things. I didn't think it was offensive when a white woman was hired to play the female lead. However, right now black racial makeup and blackface are too intimately related in America for it to work.

Morgan said...

It seems to me that it doesn't carry the same heavy stigma in England. I've seen several British sitcoms and straight up comedy shows where they've have characters in blackface. Shows that are apparently popular in England. So clearly it's not as big a deal over there. Although I too had that shocked, knee-jerk 'Oh my god' reaction to seeing those episodes.

Maybe England is more okay with it because they abolished slavery on their own instead of half the country fighting to keep it? For America, we still have a guilty conscience about slavery and therefor any negative (or even perceived negative) ethnic portrayal makes us cringe. I think it's becoming less so, which is a good thing... although I would say it's not entirely a bad thing. They do say, whomever they are, that those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it. So at least it seems we're not yet doomed.