Black Face & “Ironic” Racism

So someone at Smith College got the not-so-brilliant-in-hindsight idea to throw a party with the theme: celebrity rehab. When two white guests showed up in blackface at the party as Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, people objected and the faux Whitney and Bobby reverted to their previously white faces. The white Smith students excursion into blackface, and what one scholar has called “racial fantasy,” set off a controversy over the weekend that gained intensity through hundreds of posts to Smith’s Daily Jolt message board.

Perhaps these white students, like that Chapman guy who thought he was “cool enough with Black people” to repeatedly use a racial slur when referring to his son’s girlfriend, thought they were “cool enough” to go to the party in black face. Not to excuse these students for their misguided attempt at humor, but a brief scan of some behavior by whites in the pop culture landscape, and it’s easy to see how they might have thought their stunt would be a hit. For example, on the Comedy Channel’s Sarah Silverman Show, Silverman recently did a skit where she appears in black face, as do a number of other white people. Here’s the 2-minute video online. (Be forewarned: the video and the audio play when you click the link.) This phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. In the UK, Mark Hooper writing for the Guardian Unlimited wonders about the “ironic racism” in shows such as The Office (the original British version). Hooper poses a great question:

When the joke is on the racist characters, does that make it OK to repeat the racism?

It’s a difficult question to answer and a difficult comedic feat to pull off. Mostly, I think it depends. I like comedy that’s subversive, that makes me laugh as it challenges my assumptions (e.g., Richard Pryor, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle), but Silverman’s black face routine never makes me laugh or question the status quo. Several people have noted that we’re living in an age of irony, in which the default response is one of detached hipness and cynicism. And, it’s within this context that the attempt-at-comedic-racism and the “ironic” racism emerge. In this brand of racism, white people imagine themselves to be “cool enough” to be black, and thus able to escape their own white identity, if only briefly.

But, this isn’t unique to the contemporary, ironic age. White people have long been fascinated by (and fetishized) blackness and sought to escape whiteness through black face and by appropriating black music and culture. To tremendously oversimplify a complex field of scholarship about blackface and minstrelsy, one of the points that Lott makes in his Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford University Press, 1993), is that black face performance by whites reflects both a desire for blackness (“love”) and a plundering of black culture and the denial of unremunerated black labor (“theft”). I think there’s a strong case to be made that many of the racial dynamics of “love” and “theft” that fueled Jacksonian-era minstrelsy are operating underneath the displays of black face and “ironic” racism in contemporary pop culture. Whether or not this constitutes a subversive racial practice is the subject of scholarly debate, but it’s not very funny.


  1. Will

    I often wonder, sometimes aloud, as to what the response of Smith’s administration a similar event happened here at Trinity College (CT) in the Fall of 2006. While there was outrage on the outset from students, staff and faculty in the beginning , in the year following there nothing of substance has occurred (a committee has been formed and there recommendations are “under review”). I would like some perspective as to what is realistic to expect?

  2. Jessie Author

    I’m not sure what the ultimate response will be at Smith. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s similar to the non-response you describe at Trinity, Will. The fact is that we, as a society, don’t take such expressions of racism seriously and when they do get addressed it often gets reframed as “censorship.” For example, the clip that Seattle posted above is titled, “the Uncensored Version,” since it includes the blackface images, suggesting that the version without them has been “censored.”


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