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Having Your Racist Cake & Eating it Too

April 27, 2012

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

  • http://twitter.com/KennyEvil Chris Gannon

    Hi Matt,

    Author of the tweet here and your blog has given me a lot to think about concerning my reaction to Hamm’s performance. I’d like to believe that my laughter was based on white idiocy that informed the ebonics-spouting black idiot stereotype that Hamm was playing, and that I was laughing at Kenneth’s presentation of it as another part of NBC’s “proud” history of live television which was clearly quite shameful. I also laughed at the skits based on the Honeymooner’s casual endorsement of domestic violence and the 70s newscasters’ utter bafflement at the idea of a female reporter and their patronising attitude towards her, and I’m not someone who would laugh at actual domestic violence or real sexism.

    On the other hand, I didn’t comment on those, I commented on the blackface. It might well have been because Hamm’s performance was so over the top and overtly racist that it just stood out the most for me. Blackface isn’t really something that you see much of these days, and really the only place I can remember seeing it recently was, coincidentally enough, an episode of Mad Men where it was used as a savage indictment of the overt racism of the sixties not just because of its use but because of the delighted laughter of the guests at the party. Before that, the last time I remember seeing it used as a joke without ironic context were clips of the the minstrel shows that used to be part of the BBC’s Saturday night light entertainment right up until the late 70s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoYOraDt1_k and this page from a comic annual from 1981 http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrnickyp/159936289/

    Whilst both of these things happened years before I was born, it’s not like these traditions went away overnight and I’m certain that jokes like these were still being made after 1984, though to a lesser degree. 

    I’d certainly like to believe that my reaction was based on the first set of reasons I gave and that it wasn’t just the transitive thrill and safe feeling that comes from seeing it in an ironic context but I can’t be entirely certain.

    Chris

    PS: FYI, I hadn’t read your blog at the time I sent the second tweet. I saw your twitter feed after you retweeted me the first time, cycled to work and then sent the second tweet.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your thoughtful response here. I’m sorry that it seemed I was singling you out in this post. I actually retweeted several comments mentioning “hamm blackface” and yours was the only one I linked to here, in the interest of brevity. 

    Just to be clear, I am not necessarily saying that the 30 Rock piece was wrong or racist, only raising some questions about its reception versus that of Linde’s performance piece. Race is make believe. Racial drag can reveal this I hope. I’m not categorically against the use of blackface. I have even (kinda) used it a couple of times in my own performance, but I’m not sure I would again. And I remain conflicted about how transcendent or transformative it can really be, especially when performed by a white person.

    I also watch Mad Men, and think you’re absolutely right about how Roger Sterling’s blackface moment is deployed to horrify the audience. But Roger’s racist humor often comes as a package deal with his dry wit and undeniable charisma. In a recent episode, he bemoaned the new black secretary Dawn, with a one-liner about “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” It was a funny joke to the fictional characters of Mad Men. But many viewers also found it funny. Are we laughing ironically? How different is our laughter from those of the racist characters? Aren’t we at least partially laughing at the fact that Roger can “get away with” a joke like that?

    As with the 30 Rock skit tonight, I’m put off by the way racism is signaled to be a problem of the past, safely viewed and tsk tsked at, from an ironic and nostalgic distance. Institutional racism still exists throughout Hollywood, and I am suspicious of anything that seduces audiences into thinking otherwise. A friend of mine pointed out to me that the 30 Rock skit ends with a joke critiquing NBC’s continuing reluctance to have two black actors on the same show. I’m glad they can poke fun at themselves. I’m just not sure the world is ready for ironic blackface on network TV.

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