Sunday, June 13, 2010

Your definitive guide to determining if blackface is offensive

 The short answer, of course, is yes.  But since so many people seem not to understand the short answer, I've decided to provide a long one.  The title of this post is tongue-in-cheek.  This is clearly not the definitive guide to whether something is offensive.  If someone finds something offensive that is outside the bounds of this guide, you may disagree with them, but I suggest you listen to them, understand their reasons for being offended or hurt, and then move on with your life.  (That last part is important--If you don't agree, and the opinion with which you don't agree is not oppressive or harmful, think it over, and then walk away.) 

[Image via TLo.  The image depicts a blond, white model in six photographs, dressed up in a different style in each, such as a "naughty secretary" or androgynous businesswoman.  The top-left image depicts the woman in a short black wig and "Asian"-style eye makeup.  The top-right image depicts the woman in an afro wig with her face darkened by makeup.]

The image above comes from a photo shoot Claudia Schiffer did with Karl Lagerfeld.  This photo shoot is an example of both black and yellow-face.  Renee Martin wrote about the offense caused by this image, rightly predicting she would experience resistance from her readership:
So here I am writing yet another piece about Blackface, and I am sure someone will tell me to just relax or get a life. Perhaps they might even suggest that I have no sense of humour, or that I really just don’t get the nature of so-called art; however, protestations and excuses aside, Blackface has always been offensive and will continue to remain that way. When you ignore the anger of a group of people to their obvious marginalization, it is because you have already decided that your privilege is worth more than their sense of self and humanity.
Like clockwork, someone chimed in with this comment:
In my opinion I found the entire showcase of Karl Lagerfeld's photo's of her to be beautiful..... starting with the Asian photo and even the one of as an African American woman. I don't think that the intent of his pics of her were to be racist even given the history of the traditional black face... this wasn't it.... heck had no one said who she was I might have thought that she was mulatto or something.... it almost looks natural with the exception of the dark black afro. I even like the pic of her with the men's suit and hair pulled back... again I just find it hard to be offended with this one.
Over at TLo, someone had this to say:
if she were doing something stereotypical, it would be insulting, and hence racist. but she isn't doing anything. it's just makeup.

the makeup could be construed as being reminiscent of the makeup used in practices that were racist (blackface performances/minstrel shows), but not everything that reminds people of something that was used in a racist way until 50 years ago is racist itself. this doesn't perpetuate any negative stereotypes, so i fail to see how this could be harmful in any way...
And you may remember a similar line of reasoning being offered up when I wrote about Ke$ha's performance in indigenous blackface.  The basic argument seems to be that dressing up as another race is totally okay, "artistic" even, as long as that person does not also mock that race in voice and action.  This is incorrect.  The hurt caused by minstrel shows was indeed deepened by the caricature that accompanied the impersonation, but this does not negate the hurt caused by a physical impersonation alone.  Despite this high potential for harm, people continue to use and defend the use of blackface.  I think they will find, though, that in 99.9% of cases, they cannot answer no to the following list of simple questions.

Does the use of blackface (or other racial impersonation) explicitly or implicitly mock the race being depicted?  This could be through words, actions, or caricature (exaggeration for humorous effect) of physical appearance.  This is the form of offense people most commonly understand, but the key questions don't stop here.

Does the use of blackface displace a person of color?  This is frequently the case in fashion images where a white model is depicted in blackface (link NSFW) while actual models of color are excluded from the magazine's pages.  Models of color are routinely not used in editorial spreads and runway shows.  Using painted white models to depict racial diversity subjugates models of color.  To understand how this hierarchy plays out, think about Shakespeare's stage when men dressed as women because female actors were not permitted.  The impersonators were not necessarily mocking women (although many were), but their presence onstage displaced women, representing and reinforcing the cultural hierarchy at the time.

Does this use of blackface use race as a prop or a fetish?  Schiffer's rep defended the shots by saying they were "designed to reflect different men's fantasies."  This "defense" makes clear that the photos are a fetishization of race rather than a representation.  The "race" of the character Schiffer is playing is exoticized, otherized, and turned into a sexual object.  It is therefore an essentially demeaning depiction of this race.  Similarly, when Ke$ha donned a native American headdress, she was not paying homage to this culture, but rather appropriating it as an object for consumption by a white audience.

Does the example of blackface you're so eager to defend (sorry, probably not you, but apparently there are some of those yous out there) pass all of these tests?  Then ask yourself this summary question:

Is it critiquing or subverting traditional power structures or is it reinforcing them?  See RMJ's excellent application of this standard to jokes about race in television shows for an example.  If the traditional hierarchy and depiction of race is placed under a critical gaze, the use of blackface may contain artistic merit.  This would be in extremely rare circumstances, such as if an artist chose to photograph a white subject painted black and a black subject painted white, participating in some action that subverted traditional racial (and racist) hierarchies.  To do so, the focus of the artist has to be on undermining an abusive power structure, not on using it to dramatic effect.  I have never seen an example of blackface actually accomplish this, but it could be possible.

However, even if this is accomplished, because of the potential of any use of blackface to reopen old wounds, there is still one more question that needs asking: Does the good (the enhancement of artistic value, the questioning of traditional power structures, the raising of awareness to an issue, etc.) done by choosing to utilize blackface outweigh the harm of using an inherently offensive form of representation?

Did your work of "art" pass the test?  If not, please stop yelling at Renee and other people who are trying to fight racism.  It doesn't matter if it doesn't offend you, it's offensive.  Put it away.


  1. This article is spot on! You've put up a very good set of criteria for assessing racial impersonations. Yeah, under those criteria, I have yet to see any instance of blackface or other racial impersonation that passes. One would think that, if it was actually true that these creators aren't racist, they would've cared enough to use a depiction that precisely won't piss people off. It's just backwards to expect marginalized people to not get offended by insulting stereotyping.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I've understood that blackface was offensive (I mean, if someone says something is *ist towards them, I'm inclined to take their word for it, as they're doubtless are more attuned to it than I am), but I admit I've been unable until now to see quite why.

    I've only recently recognized and been pushing against my slew of privileges, so enlightening articles such as this one are very, very helpful for newbies such as myself.

  3. I'm glad to hear that, Flutterby. I want to believe that most of the commenters defending blackface are just similarly lacking information, but if that were really the case, one wonders why they don't take a stance more similar to yours and take the marginalized group's word for it until they learn more. Most people get defensive instead!


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