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Blackface: When Nuance Meets Taboo

One of the first lessons my students of undergraduate literary studies learn about text analysis is to distinguish between internal and external communication.”

While no one denies the racist history of blackface, the recent wave of scandals, cancellations, and mea culpas in connection with this controversial performative practice suggests a cultural taboo of religious proportions. 

However, there is, arguably, a moral difference depending on whether blackface serves to portray a generic black identity or racial stereotype, to impersonate a specific black individual, or to provide ironic commentary on the practice itself. Yet these tend to be painted with the same brush, indicating a troubling lack of nuance in our public discourse.

This is not to mention even instances of perceived blackface that have nothing whatsoever to do with race, such as the much-reported case of a supposedly offensive photograph of Welsh coal miners covered in soot. Epitomizing woke hyper-sensitivity, such cases are analogous to the word “niggardly,” which has led to a number of controversies despite having nothing to do with the N-word.

Another parallel between the N-word and blackface is that they both seem to defy conventional forms of detachment. They cannot even be used ironically or meta-discursively without arousing controversy. Being taboo, they tend to be taken at face value. 

I remember reviewing an article for a cultural studies journal entitled “How to Get Away with Blackface: Performances of Black Masculinity in Tropic Thunder.” The article problematized, among other things, Robert Downey Jr.’s use of blackface in the 2008 Ben Stiller movie. Downey’s performance, however, involves multiple layers of detachment. 

In the film, Downey plays an eccentric method actor cast as an African-American soldier in a Vietnam War movie. Blackface is part of the role. Part of the humor comes from the fact that Downey’s character, immersed in his role, is unaware of his faux pas, while the audience is in on the joke. There is even a protagonist in the movie, a young black man (played by Brandon T. Jackson), whose main dramatic purpose appears to be to challenge the inappropriate method acting of Downey’s character. 

In one scene, for example, Ben Stiller’s character, addressing the cast “off-camera,” says, with some frustration, “I don’t believe you people.” At which Downey’s character, still in blackface (and in character), replies in a taunting tone of voice: “What do you mean, ‘you people’?” After a short, awkward pause, the young black protagonist asks, “What do you mean, ‘you people’?”

From a woke social justice perspective, however, none of this matters. The multi-layered fictional framework of Tropic Thunder collapses into a single dimension of performance: Robert Downey Jr. did blackface.

One of the first lessons my students of undergraduate literary studies learn about text analysis is to distinguish between internal and external communication. What goes on inside a literary text, on the level of fictional mediation, is not to be confused with the non-fictional realm inhabited by the author and the reader. In short, fictional statements are not to be taken at face value.

Woke critics and commentators tend to ignore this basic guideline. Whether they do so negligently or intentionally, the result has been increased pressure on writers and other creative artists to conform to politically correct standards. These standards, however, appear to be changing in direct proportion to woke agitators’ cultural influence. With every concession, the bar gets raised. 

While it is hardly surprising that pre-millennial television shows have a tendency to offend modern sensibilities (which is not to suggest that they deserve to be censored or cancelled), the censorious—and censoring—re-evaluation of relatively recent programs looks increasingly like ideological fanaticism. A 2012 episode of The Office, for example, has recently come under attack for its use of blackface. The offensive scene has, thus, been edited. As with Tropic Thunder, however, the black make-up worn by one of the characters may best be understood as “meta-blackface”: a commentary on the practice and its implications.

The Office, for the uninitiated, is a “cringe comedy” series which derives humor from social awkwardness. From the episode “Dwight’s Christmas,” the scene in question has Dwight—portrayed as out of step with modern society—perform as Belsnickel, a fur-clad gift-bringer figure from Dutch-German folklore, at the office Christmas party. Doubting the authenticity of Dwight’s performance, Oscar, another main character in the series, reads the Wikipedia entry for “Belsnickel”: “… his partner Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, a slave boy, often portrayed in colorful pantaloons and blackface.” Stanley, a black protagonist, shakes his head in disapproval: “No, Dwight, no.” “Oh, come on,” replies Dwight, “we don’t blindly stick to every outmoded aspect of our traditions.” He then takes out his phone, hastily typing a text message. Here, the scene briefly cuts to the office parking lot where, upon receiving Dwight’s message, a figure matching Oscar’s description stops in his tracks and turns back to his car. 

Show creator Greg Daniels has apologized “for the pain that caused.” Pain? To whom? The idea that black viewers need to be protected from such images seems patronizing. Nor is a joke about blackface an endorsement of it. Quite the contrary. In both Tropic Thunder and The Office, blackface is portrayed as an outmoded and offensive practice worthy of criticism. The Office even puts it in a particular cultural context: the controversial figure of Zwarte Piet, a companion of Saint Nicholas in Dutch Christmas folklore.

Zwarte Piet, with his curly wig and red lipstick, definitely looks like a caricature of a black person, and given the Netherlands’ colonial history in Africa, this portrayal certainly seems in bad taste. However, there are also other, related folk traditions in which the figure of Saint Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus, is portrayed with an entourage of dark companions. In my grandparents’ village in the South of Austria, for instance, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by a demon-like creature known as Krampus, traditionally portrayed in blackface. The black make-up, however, has nothing to do with race. So, while Holland’s Zwarte Piet has undeniable racial—if not racist—connotations, there might be more to the figure than meets the eye. 

Other folk traditions involving blackface include Border Morris in the United Kingdom. In recent years, blacked-up Morris dancers have become the subject of much controversy. Whether the origins of this centuries-old custom have anything to do with racism, however, is much debated. Those who would like to see the practice banned tend to argue that what matters is how it is perceived today. Perception, however, can be deceiving. 

Is blackface inherently racist? I would argue to the contrary. Context and intention matter. To ignore the moral difference between a minstrel show, in which white performers in blackface unabashedly promoted racial stereotypes, and cases like Tropic Thunder, The Office, or even Border Morris is hardly a productive way to battle racism. If all of these are deemed equally “racist,” the accusation loses all meaning. 

There are even cases where the assumption of racism is itself implicitly racist. For example, when, in 2000, Jimmy Fallon did an impersonation of fellow comedian Chris Rock, donning blackface, he was obviously trying to imitate Rock’s physical appearance. Dark skin happens to be one of Rock’s physical characteristics. To condemn as racist Fallon’s decision to include this characteristic in his performance is to reduce Rock, a successful artist, to his race. The accusation prioritizes racial over individualistic thinking. 

The concept of blackface has recently been expanded to include white voice actors who lend their voices to cartoon characters of color (“animated blackface”). Mike Henry, the voice of Family Guy’s Cleveland Brown, for instance, has stepped down from his role, declaring that “persons of color should play characters of color.” Why? Is race really such a definitive line of separation as to be intransgressible even in make-believe? After all, Family Guy is an animated series that features, among other fanciful characters, a talking dog and an evil-genius baby. In other words, the expectation that voice actors’ identities align with those of their characters is absurd. Moreover, there is clearly a difference between playing a role (in the theatrical sense) and voice acting, a distinction blurred by Henry’s use of the word “play.”

What about drawing a black cartoon character while white? I would not put it past the woke to demand, in the name of “anti-racism,” that only artists of color should draw characters of color. There is, after all, a history of racist cartoons. The inevitable consequence of this supposed progressive attitude is an increasingly racially segregated culture. 

Blackface is not all black and white. The ability to distinguish between different shades of blackface is essential for a critical understanding of the subject. Of course, the same could, theoretically, be said about wokeness. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the suppression of nuanced discourse in favor of ideological conformity is part and parcel of woke activism. Blackface is a case in point.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Robert Downey Jr.’s surname. 

One thought on “Blackface: When Nuance Meets Taboo

  1. I think the author is onto a bigger issue. He observes that one of the first things he teaches his undergrad students is “fictional statements are not to be taken at face value”, Any 18+ year old who needs to be taught this has already been virtually hopelessly dehumanized. I believe any developmental psychologist should know that the capacity to understand and think in metaphors happens way earlier than 18. Any 18 year old who has no understanding of the metaphor is incapable of thinking. Those who don’t understand that language and images are analogues or metaphors for reality apparently believe that reality can be made over simply by controlling language and images. Such infantile and stunted “thinking” can only end in violence.

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