Thursday, July 27, 2006

Burn the Cork

I simply don't understand the 21st century's tolerance for racial or ethnic makeup. In the past five years, I can count many instances of blackface, brownface, and yellowface in pop culture, none of which receive nearly the kind of outcry that one might expect. For my readers who don't know or don't understand the racism behind "colour-face" (as I'll call it), the practice originated out of the minstrelsy-style of stageshows more than two centuries ago. In part because actors and actresses of colour were taboo, and in part because one of the most popular form of humour was caricaturing "The Other", White actors and actresses frequently donned heavy makeup in order to mimic people of other races. These caricatures were intended to be derogatory towards their subjects, and even associated natural pigmentation with clown makeup. Wearing "colour-face" coupled the makeup with offensive stereotypes of behaviour; the actor would deliberately play the role of the bumbling fool, the inspid or stupid coolie, or the thwarted villain. (While writing this, I am reminded of how frequently I overhear White colleagues of mine mention the "Fu Manchu moustache" as a form of comedy and even suggest donning it themselves for Halloween or other costume parties to "play Asian"). Part of the problem with "colour-face" was not just the perpetuation of derogatory, race-based stereotypes but the act of applying the racial makeup. Blackface was traditionally applied by burning cork, mixing it with water, and applying the sludge to one's face, leaving only the whites of the eyes and bright red lips. Yellowface frequently included dark eye makeup to create an artificial slant, black wigs, and long wispy moustaches. But, beneath the makeup and costumes was a White actor, and the act of being able to remove "colour-face" minimalized the identity and racial pain of minorities, implying that these identities could be shed with so much soap and water. Oppression and racism, then, was not addressed as an issue, because we were exposed to a representation of race boundaries as amorphous. If one can change race so readily, then racism no longer is a problem and thus need not be addressed. Further compounding the problem with "colour-face" was the fact that any actors or actresses of colour wishing to perform on-stage, or later, on-film found themselves required to don racial makeup and play the stereotype in order to be palatable to their White audiences. Blackface and other forms of racial makeup is so deeply entrenched in American cinema that the first major American film is Birth of a Nation (1915), a movie that contained such offensive depictions of Blacks using actors in Blackface that it is still used as a recruting video by the Ku Klux Klan, today. Asian characters in Hollywood were frequently portrayed by White actors in yellowface, most notably the actors portraying Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. As described above, "colour-face" has long been considered offensive to people of colour, not primarily because of the stereotypes involved, but by the act of donning racial makeup to mimic another race. It is this act -- this idea of being able to transition into and out of oppression -- that strikes at the core of people of colour. The unspoken truth is that we cannot wash this off. And yet, despite the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, when America was faced with the racial pain of its oppressed minorities, Hollywood has remained deliberately ignorant of offending racial minorities. "Colour-face" still appears frequently in American cinema, and is doing so with greater frequency now more than ever. Gone is the actual burnt cork, but the symbolism of the cork is ever-present, as Hollywood makeup artists resort to racial stereotypes to maintain the "illusion" of trans-racialization. In 1986, C. Thomas Howell, a promising young actor played the starring role in Soul Man, a movie in which a bright student, Mark, wants to get a scholarship to Harvard, but unfortunately there is only one spot remaining: a spot for a Black student. Because Mark is White, he uses a magic pill to "become Black", and the actor dons Blackface to successfully trick the Harvard administrators into giving him the spot. The movie is filled with C. Thomas Howell "playing Black", including Stevie Wonder and Prince impersonations. Soul Man was heavily protested by the Black community and effectively ended C. Thomas Howell's career. Yet, lately, we have seen a resurgence of "colour-face" in American cinema. FX recently aired the miniseries Black. White. which featured real people wearing Blackface or Whiteface in order to infiltrate the Black and White communities. Comedians have been relying on "colour-face" to make race-based humour. Not just White comedians, like Jack Black who wore Brownface in the recent Nacho Libre, but comedians of colour like the Wayan brothers who donned Whiteface for White Chicks. Yellowface seems especially popular, with not only the recent re-release of Charlie Chan on DVD but filmmakers like Quentin Tarentino considering themselves to play an Asian character in Kill Bill, vol. 2 and Christopher Walken playing an Asian villain in the upcoming Balls of Fury. And of course, let us not forget Dave Chappelle playing almost every single "colour-face" one can think of in the infamous "Racial Pixies" sketch. But what is most frustrating is that very few communities of colour express outcry against the blackface, yellowface, whiteface or brownface we saw on television and in the movies. Not only was there no substantial crticism of Jack Black portraying a Mexican man by donning a wig and speaking in a caricatured accent, but communities of colour are particularly quick to defend comedians within their community who resort to "colour-face", as if (in the case of Chappelle, for example), a criticism of Chappelle's "colour-face" is interpreted as a criticism of his career in general or of Black comedians, entirely. It's as if communities of colour have forgotten the history of "colour-face", and how it has been one of the most powerful tools of oppression used by the White mainstream against us. By turning a blind eye to Jack Black or Quenting Tarentino, we grant implicit approval not just of their "colour-face" but of all "colour-face", and the perpetuation the attitudes and stereotypes communicated by those acts. We express distaste towards derogatory stereotypes of stupidity, ineptitude, foolishness or villainy, so why are we mute when it comes to speaking out against "colour-face" in all its forms? In particular, by refusing to condemn comedians of colour who resort to "colour-face", we send the message that people of colour cannot commit racist or aid the perpetuation of oppressive acts. In many cases, the "colour-face" is perpetrated for the amusement of the White mainstream, and yet communities of colour seem to be more concerned with the comedian's own colour rather than how he or she may be injuring their community, other communities, or the cause of racial equality in general. After all, just because a person experiences racism or oppression does not negate the power of his actions -- even in the history of blackface, Black actors donned blackface for their own personal fame and prosperity, sacrificing the interests of their own community for their own success. Have we really reached a point in the struggle for racial equality that we no longer remember our past, and are so blinded by maintaining community unity that we're unwilling to consider the true complexity of oppressive actions? Are we so sensitive to criticisms of people of colour that we now perpetuate the harmful image that only Whites are capable of racially harmful behaviour? Racism will continue to be a problem so long as we deliberately and willfully continue to keep race relations dialogue at the most pedestrian of levels, oversimplifying the problem to an "oppressed/oppressor" paradigm in which one is either one or the other, and never a perpetrator of both. "Colour-face" never exists on its own, but exists as a part of a timeline of racism and stereotyping in media. And so long as we forget the racist history of our past, we will be doomed to repeat it. (Incidentally, I recommend to any person of colour or race activist that you see Spike Lee's Bamboozled, which provides an excellent historical study and current commentary of blackface.)


Blogger Cocacy said...

Excellent blog and exceptionally excellent post. I've written a nd read much about Blackface and am simultaneously surprised and enraged at the apathy twoards their resurgences in American culture. well done and well said. I look forward to reading more of your posts :)

7/28/2006 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Hi Cocacy! Thank you for visiting and for the comment! I look forward to reading some of your stuff on blackface as well!

7/28/2006 06:12:00 PM  
Blogger Sage said...

Don't forget Peter Sellers playing an East Indian in "The Party"!

7/28/2006 07:48:00 PM  
Anonymous jojo said...

Thanks for this. I never really understood [insert color]face, other than blackface being used in the past for minstrel shows. Now I have a better idea. I'm definitely gonna check out bamboozled.

7/29/2006 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger mingerspice said...

A quibble about lumping Black/White in with the other media:

In Black/White, the black and white makeup process were clearly visible as such to the audience (of the TV show), and the racial imitation was internal to the narrative. Not only that, but there was very much critical attention paid to that process of "passing" as someone of another race, and (at least some of) the participants had some very sensitive and interesting things to say about "authenticity" and stereotypes.

In my opinion this makes a pretty big difference - nobody in the audience is going to make the mistake that a member of the white family reflects the experiences of black people. They only reflect the experiences of a white family passing as black for a period of time - the crucial point of the show.

7/29/2006 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Radical Hapa said...

I am very impressed with your blog and your regular analysis, you have a gift and I appreciate the time you take to work out these ideas. I liked Black/White on FX, what were your thoughts? I think that those types of films create space for new dialogue, or old dialogue renewed.

7/31/2006 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Jay said...

What's ironic is that C. Thomas Howell later married Rae Dawn Chong.

8/02/2006 04:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. You might want to add Angelina Jolie's performance in the upcoming Daniel Pearl movie in which Jolie plays Pearl's Afro-Cuban wife (who's a deadringer for Rae Dawn Chong or Julie Reyes).

As for Jack Black in Nacho libre, Black wasn't wearing a wig or in brown face. His character is supposed to be Swedish-Mexican. That said, Although most of Mexico's population is mixed or indigenous, Mexico also has a large number of Caucasians since it was conquered and settled by the Spanish.

Many times, people make the mistake of thinking that Latino or Hispanic designates a "race" instead of an ethnicity based on language and culture. Thus, there are Latinos who are white, black, Native/Indigenous Americans, Mestizo, mixed black/white, and Asian. For instance, the majority population of Cuba is of African descent, either "black" or mulatto. Argentina has very few people of color, Indigenous people were wiped out and the African population disappeared through intermarriage.

8/02/2006 09:20:00 PM  
Blogger Dei Wong said...

First I have to say that this a excellent post. In fact you have a great blog that address issues that I feel need to be talked about more in our society.

But I think the only way things like this can ever be fixed is if people start seeing each other as equals. You would be surprise how the need to mock is diminished when you have r-e-s-p-e-c-t for them. This is a worldwide problem not only a US problem. (Not that I am trying to change or divert from the topic. Please tell me if I am.)and until someone from one end of the earth can look at someone from the opposite end and see just a person this will never go away. But by no means am I saying that what you and others who do what you do isn't helping and isn't a giant step in the right direction.

8/03/2006 01:03:00 PM  
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