Tuesday, September 4, 2012

on blackface, or the cultural imperialism of anti-racism

Here's almost everything I've written about blackface. The tl;dr: Social justice warriors don't believe in context. Blackface is about mockery. If someone's pretending to be someone of another race without making fun of people of that race, it ain't racist. It might be stupid or ignorant, but as many have noted, ignorance is not racism; it's just ignorance.

1. class and race intersect yet again (10/9/9)

I thought the Jackson Jive incident was an example of pure racism. Then the members of the "Jive" gave their occupations, and I realized that five upperclass Australians, four white and one Indian, had performed an astonishingly racist skit that was paid for by the show's upperclass producers.

Someday I'm sure I'll run into an example of something that's racist where class isn't a factor. But I haven't found it yet.

Harry Connick Jr. is my hero of the day.

2. anti-racism excess: KFC ad, or the intersection of anti-racism and US cultural imperialism

Via KFC ad: Placate threatening black people with fried chicken…:

Racist KFC advertisement?

I wondered if this was like the Aussies in blackface performing in front of Harry Connick, Jr. Nope. Maybe it's just because I recognize Australia's national colors, but it seemed obvious to me this was about two different sports teams. Which it turns out it is. Australia's playing the West Indies team soon.

But American anti-racists are imposing US racism on other nations now. As any number of Australians have pointed out, Aussies didn't have a clue that in the US, black people liking fried chicken is racist.

Which, frankly, is one of the weirder bits of US racist code. I grew up in the South, and everybody down there liked fried chicken. We owned a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant for a while, and were one of the few places in the county that served whites and blacks. Mom and Dad were told by some black families that they came out of their way to support us. By eating fried chicken...

But I digress.

3. Will.i.am Defends 'Blackface' VMAs Costume (9/13/10)

4. racist? awesome? both? Florence + The Machine - No Light, No Light (11/19/11)

Florence + The Machine - No Light, No Light - YouTube

Some people think that any time you paint a person black or use voodoo images, it's racist, but art's more complex than that--you have to judge each piece on its own merits. Just as supernatural movies about exorcism don't automatically make people anti-Catholic, supernatural movies about voodoo don't automatically make people anti-voudoun. As for people painted black, there's an enormous difference between the racist caricature of blackface and this. Is anyone really going to watch this and believe that black people are scary voodoo creatures? I think not.

5. on blackface and actors playing other races

This is a classic image of blackface, a white person wearing makeup to mock black people:

Note the exaggerated lips and the unnaturally dark skin—blackface was done with black shoe polish or a very dark skin dye to make a white person look like a black version of a whiteface clown.

Some people think any attempt to portray someone of another race is racist. They say this white model portraying a black woman is racist:

And Beyonce Knowles betrayed all black and Asian Women by modeling as a white woman:

Beyonce was also accused of doing blackface when she darkened her skin:

If you accept the logic that portraying someone of another race is always racist, John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me is a racist book; when segregation was legal in the US, he darkened his skin and hair to have a first-hand experience of being black:

Whites who play Othello get accused of doing blackface:

But people rarely accuse Orson Welles of blackface because he plays the character with respect:

While Lawrence Olivier's makeup and eye-rolling crosses into parody:

The question of respect for the character is crucial. Harry Connick was caught up having to judge a bad parody of the Jacksons in Australia:

These people aren't parodying the individual Jacksons; they've made themselves up to look like golliwoggs, and the humor comes from the idea of, as Connick puts it, portraying black folks as buffoons.

That's the simple rule for deciding whether someone is indulging in blackface: If they're mocking a race by pretending to be of that race, they're being racist. If they're not, they should be prepared for identitarians to misunderstand. But ultimately, we're all human. If you want to look like your race or sex or age or class is different, that's your right as part of the human race.

Which applies to non-human races, too. Here's a cultural artifact from the 1960s:

6. racism at Racialicious, or Florence + The Machine and Bali (12/15/11)

I suspect antiracists are more obsessed with racial purity than racists are. Racists, at least, will happily eat fried chicken and not worry about whether they're appropriating a black thing.

Which doesn't really have anything to do with this post. For once, I'm grateful to Racialicious because one of their writers' accusation that Florence + The Machine had made a racist video taught me something about Balinese religion that I hadn't known.

In the comments at ‘No Light, No Light’: White Supremacy all dressed up in a pop video is still White Supremacy | Racialicious, SFFSzmutko writes:
What is shown in the video is not blackface, nor is it representative in Voodoo. The faith that is represented here is Balinesian (spelling?) and the ritual, which they actually brought in a shaman dancer of the faith for those scenes. The body paint is part of the ritual, it is a dark green body pain with red flashes on the face, to mirror the frogs of the region. To call it blackface is actually exceptionally offensive to the Balinese faith, and I hope the writer of this article apologizes. That is the equivalent of calling a Catholic Deacon Robe a Klan Robe. It is offensive and transferring the meaning of one onto something completely different and feels as if research was not done in the writing of this article. The immediate assumption of blackface and accusations of thus actually seem to be racially based against Miss Welch (an artist who has taken forefront involvement in many Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald Tribute concerts) caucasion roots.

Also the Dog Days video, the Gospel Choir is used to represent Florence's Gospel roots in terms of her music. Its like why the 60s mod women are there, because the 60s inspire her. Also she does not make herself "whiter" in the video, whe is dressed in Japanese Kabuki Garb complete with Kabuki Makeup. The reason everything blows up at the end is that it is the removal of inspiration until only Florence is left. It is a representation of her roots in music.

Also, maybe it is because I have research the Balinese Faith, but the ritual's meaning is similar to the song the choir is singing. I took the video to be ABOUT running from the unfamiliar and taking shelter in the familiar. I thought that it was ABOUT ignorance.
Other commenters dismiss that, because antiracists have a powerful streak of US imperialism which says other cultures don't matter. If something makes antiracists think of something that had racist connotations in the US, those connotations matter more than, well, the truth.

When antiracists waved away the Balinese origin of the imagery, Ohmansteve wrote:
I find the insinuation that the Balinese body paint used to become the frog in the ritual dance that the shaman in this video is showcasing is blackface, and that it is a representation of Voodoo, instead of the Balinesian faith, to be racist and to reek of poor research. Shame on this site for not doing research, and jumping to the conclusion that body paint in a white person's video must be blackface. Thank you for the bald faced racism here, go research the Balinese religion.
Sunmelive added:
RACISM? WHERE?! Flo is a woman who has just gotten out of a relationship. She still loves this person so she holds on to his memory and all the negative energy that came with their relationship. It is making her self destructive, the asian man painted dark green with bright red lips tries to help her through a Balinese ritual dance called a sanghyang but she refuses because that's all she has at this point. So he uses the doll to weaken her and force her to see reason.
ETA: Sanghyang - Wikipedia

Sanghyang dan kecak 1926 (Silent) - YouTube :

ETA 2: The existence of Balinese voodoo.

7. a comment about Holland's "Black Pete"

I've been pondering the Zwarte Piet controversy. The Dutch, being seafarers, were big in the African slave trade, and they didn't abolish slavery until 1863, well after Zwarte Piet became part of the culture. But I'd want more evidence that modern Holland is racist before concluding the Zwarte Piet is racist. As always, context matters.

Mind you, I'm not saying Holland isn't racist. I just don't know enough about their attitudes toward interracial marriage, black folks in white collar jobs, and such to say. I do know there are anti-immigrant factions, but anti-immigrants aren't necessarily racists--in Arizona, there are Hispanic Republicans who want to limit immigration.

8. a conversation with a European about blackface

Cora - November 21, 2011 8:41 PM

A few days ago, I saw a clip from a German Othello performance directed by a very well known stage director. Othello was played by a white actor in full-body blackface make-up. There was a scene where Othello was locked in a clinch with Desdemona, both of them naked except for underparts (it's modern director's theatre - there's always lots of nudity), and Othello's body make-up came off and smeared all over Desdemona. The audience seemed to think the moment was really funny, the director claimed he had intended the effect from the start. And I thought, "Wow, I wouldn't want to see the racism discussions, if this play had been performed in the US."

The blackface taboo seems to be mainly a North American phenomenon, because white actors made up to look like people of other races is still a lot more common in many parts of Europe. I recently saw a report about a new Tom Sawyer adaption where the Injun Joe character was played by a white actor in make-up, who was praised for his thoughtful performance. And Winnetou, the Apache chief hero from Karl May's western novels, was played on screen and on the stage by a Frenchman and a Croatian respectively, while the current stage Winnetou is a Turkish-German actor. And no one blinks an eye.

And of course, kids dressing up as the three wise men for church plays and star singer processions generally include one kid in black face. Though I got a real kick last year, when I saw a star singer procession with an actual black kid playing Casper.

Will Shetterly - November 21, 2011 9:47 PM

Cora, it's always interesting to get another perspective on this. Thank you.

In the case of the smeared makeup, I can see a comment being made about Othello's "blackness" getting on Desdemona, but to make it work for me, it would call for a general tone throughout the play of distance and commentary about race.

I'm trying to decide whether something like blackface could be done symbolically and respectfully, where a white actor has a token amount of black makeup in the same way an actor might play Shakespeare in a leotard. I think it comes back to the performance itself.

Cora - November 22, 2011 8:44 PM

I haven't seen the play itself, just a clip of the make-up coming off moment on a cultural news program, so I don't know how respectful or not it was. The director claimed that he intended to show how Othello's "blackness" affects Desdemona in the eyes of society.

There are Othello performances which make do without dark make-up and it can work IMO, since the fact that Othello is a "Moor" is all over the text anyway.

Interestingly, there was a Hamlet production a few years ago in Britain where Hamlet was played by a black actor (Adrian Lester, best known for his role in Hustle). It worked, too, because it really doesn't matter what colour Hamlet is. And besides, who would not want to see Adrian Lester in the role?

Will Shetterly - November 22, 2011 10:09 PM

I'd love to have seen Lester in Hamlet. I'm a big fan of colorblind casting in theatre, 'cause it's s'posed to be "let's pretend." I get why it's harder with movies, but I totally respect people like Branagh who take that attitude into film. Idris Elba was an awesome Heimdal.

Cora - November 23, 2011 5:47 PM

I like colourblind casting in theatre and opera, too, and enjoy seeing a Japanese soprano sing Carmen or a black singer as Wotan in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs (just imagine how pissed off Hitler would have been). Theatre and opera usually have few pretensions to be realistic anyway, so Carmen can be Japanese, Wotan and Hamlet can be black, Othello can be white, etc... 

For some reason it does sometimes bother me in films if an already established character is portrayed by someone of a different race, probably because most films, especially those from Hollywood, aspire to be as realistic as possible. I didn't watch Thor - the original comics always struck me as cultural appropriation long before I knew the term - so I'm not sure if a black Heimdall would have bothered me (no more than the comics already bother me, most likely). After all, there's nothing in the mythological sources that says that Heimdall couldn't be black. And Idris Elba is awesome.

Regarding the Star Trek clip, I just happened to rewatch that episode for the first time in ages and the morality is extremely blatant, even by Star Trek standards. But then a mid 1960s audience probably needed it.

Will Shetterly - November 23, 2011 6:53 PM

I liked Thor, but I liked Captain America more. I think if you like any of the Marvel movies, Thor will seem like fun--everyone except Natalie Portman's good, as I remember.

My memory is that Star Trek episode seemed heavy-handed even then. US TV was mighty earnest at the end of the '60s.

Cora - November 24, 2011 9:13 PM

I actually find the original Star Trek the least heavy-handed of the franchise. Next Generation is often drowning in earnest self-righteousness (quite often, they're hypocrites, too) and the rest of the bunch is even worse. Nowadays, the original is the only Star Trek I can still rewatch without wanting to throw half the cast out of the nearest airlock.

I suspect this is due to the German dubbing. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a trend for making dubbed US and UK shows funnier than they originally were. The best example is The Persuaders, an early 1970s show starring Tony Curtis and Roger Moore, which gained cult status in Germany for the hilarious dubbing.

I never really associated Star Trek with that trend, but the reason I still like the original but can't watch the later ones anymore is that there is a lot of humour in the original, while whole episodes of Next Generation can be tedious and po-faced moralizing. So I strongly suspect that the German translators added just enough jokes and humour to make the earnestness bearable. Though they couldn't do much about the terribly heavy-handed racism analogy episode - that one simply is painful.

Will Shetterly - November 24, 2011 11:41 PM

I've never been a Next Gen fan. The only other trek I like is the later part of DS9, after the original producer left. Beginning with Season 4, I think.

To be a little fair to Next Gen, that was an awful period in American TV. They were trying to be less violent, and every show ended with people standing around laughing at a lame joke.

If I remember correctly, the German dub of Hogan's Heroes is also supposed to be much funnier than the original.

Cora - November 27, 2011 7:45 PM

I've never watched Hogan's Heroes, because this is the sort of appropriation I cannot stand. Besides, if the Nazis had really been as stupid as portrayed in Hogan's Heroes and similar films, TV shows, books, etc..., WWII would have been over a lot sooner.

Reruns are surprisingly popular in Germany, though, probably among people who don't mind being portrayed either as the go-to villains or the butt of laughs or best of all, both.

Will Shetterly - November 27, 2011 8:08 PM

I tend to think any group is fair game for comedy, so long as the people in the group chose to be in it--Nazis yes, Germans no. I haven't a clue how well Hogan's Heroes stands up--my memory is they mocked the German military, not Germans in general. But I haven't seen it since it was first broadcast in the States.

I am fond of pointing out that it had a number of Jewish actors who fled the Nazis, and one who had been in a concentration camp where his parents died:


Laughter is the best revenge.