When is blackface acceptable? Judging from the initial reaction to tonight’s 30 Rock episode, it can be received as entertaining and edgy when deployed ironically. Here’s the formula: place a popular white Hollywood actor in (partial) blackface and Afro wig and give him permission to talk in a stereotypical “black” accent. Make sure there is an angry black character onscreen signaling to the audience that the performers know that racism is wrong, while also giving them permission to enjoy the transgressive thrill of laughing at blackface (See also Tropic Thunder). Most important of all, set the skit in the past, so that people recognize that we are condemning a period of ugly racism in showbiz that is now safely behind us.
When is blackface unacceptable? Judging from the consensus response to Makode Linde’s “racist cake” performance, blackface is wrong when a black artist dons it, in the service of an anti-racist performance. Linde showed that blackface still has a sickening, visceral power, and that it can be used to reveal the ugliness of racism and white liberal voyeurism in the present day.
30 Rock proved to some that “blackface could be funny in 2012” only when the mostly white audience can be comforted that they themselves are not racists. Where the “ironic racism” of white Hollywood is concerned, truly nothing is beyond the pale.
In fact, another helping of Hollywood’s ironically racist cake is on its way.
Sacha Baron Kony