sarah silverman blackface sketch controversy
Comedy's history of using blackface (2019)
03:14 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Rebecca Wanzo is a professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (NYU Press, 2020). The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Every year, when I teach undergraduates about minstrelsy and blackface, I look around for a recent example – and I have never failed to find one. Fashion companies place grotesque images on clothes or bags. A white Australian performer like Iggy Azalea skips the black makeup but makes money by taking on an African American persona in her music. Anime clearly has a blackface problem.

But I have never used any examples from “30 Rock,” “Community,” “The Office,” “Scrubs” or “The Golden Girls,” which had episodes pulled or scenes edited out from various streaming platforms because they were deemed “blackface episodes.”

Rebecca Wanzo

A number of these episodes, albeit to varied effects, comment on racism. Protests that have sprung from George Floyd’s killing and other recent cases of police brutality have had widespread effects, including new examinations of the politics of racial representation.

Given the ways in which caricatures of Black people are often used to justify such violence, interrogating Black representation in popular culture is a natural outgrowth of the movement. But as a scholar who works on racial caricature, I can’t help but feel that pulling these episodes demonstrates a mere surface engagement with this history, and an inability to recognize precisely what makes racist representations injurious.

It is easier to pull these episodes than to do the hard work of thinking through the embedded nature of black caricature and racism in popular culture, not just in the United States but around the world.

Historically, blackface has been deployed in roughly three different ways in popular culture: the traditional form of non-black people using blackface; Black people who have been forced to use blackface (or other kinds of stereotypical performances) for employment in limited entertainment markets; and non-Black people deploying speech patterns or performances that evoke Black identity or caricatures of Black identity.

One thing is clear: If we removed every trace of racism from the pop culture canon, we would be left with quite the fragmented legacy of works. When I teach about the history of popular culture in the United States, I emphasize that African Americans – and racist caricature – are not peripheral to its development. They are at the very center of it.

Minstrelsy is the origin of American music. The first radio show to be syndicated was “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” with white men performing stereotypes of Black people.

Mickey Mouse’s origins were minstrelsy. “The Birth of a Nation” was infamously a landmark in innovative epic filmmaking while also being a recruitment tool for the KKK. The first modern musical was “Show Boat,” which has produced some impressive performances from Black performers but also had racist language and caricature in early versions.

And outside of Black representation, the vast majority of westerns are racist depictions of indigenous people, and the entire film genre that has emerged in the wake of the “war on drugs” has been one caricature after another of people from Central and South America.

This history of representations is damaging because it has circulated toxic stereotypes about various races and ethnicities, the fictive accompaniments to discriminatory and dehumanizing views. I’m puzzled by the removal of some of these episodes, which seems to be about something else.

In addition, discussing representation alone leaves out the practices of exclusion, discrimination and bad faith economic deals that have consistently made the real lives of entertainers of color so much worse than many of their white counterparts.

There are arguments to be had about whether or not the “30 Rock” episode about conflicts between white feminism and anti-Black racism is successful at getting at these debates, but when we can’t see it we can’t even have the conversation.

Why is the episode of “Community” in which Ken Jeong puts on black makeup and white hair as a dark elf in a game of “Dungeons and Dragons,” and a Black character notes it as a “hate crime,” an attack against Black people? We need to be aware of the racist logic of high fantasy that has played out in fiction and actual attacks against authors like N.K. Jemisin, but nothing about this episode speaks to that history.

Most disturbingly, why remove a brilliant episode of “The Golden Girls” about racism? In “Mixed Blessings,” Dorothy’s son Michael comes to her with the news that he is marrying a Black woman, Lorraine. Dorothy clearly harbors some discriminatory beliefs about interracial marriage. But we then learn that Michael’s fiancé is twice his age, something that is much more upsetting to Dorothy. Both families object to the marriage but come to accept it over the course of the episode.

The “blackface” scene in question depicts Dorothy’s friends Rose and Blanche walking in on the visiting families with mud masks on for facials; the comic timing and discomfort aroused by the scene demonstrate the awareness among the show’s writers and audience that it would be offensive and inappropriate if they were actually in blackface. The object of the joke is the situation – not Black people.

I’ve encountered a few white women with mud masks in spas over the course of my life, but unless they began speaking in stereotypical Black dialect and singing “Camptown races,” I wouldn’t see it as offensive.

Part of what makes this episode work as an anti-racist episode is that it does not treat Dorothy’s racism as acceptable. This stands in contrast to students dressing up in blackface for Halloween, which makes a nasty joke of their peers, or when people clearly deploy racist stereotype to suggest Black people are grotesque, criminal or comical.

Moreover, there is a great deal of relentless racist logic in media that is much more subtle than blackface. For instance, I am still angered by a first season episode about racism in “Friday Night Lights,” which is also rightly considered one of the finest television dramas of the 21st century.

After a very smart couple of episodes about a coach who repeated the oft-stated racist idea that Black men were not smart enough to be quarterbacks and the Black players’ reactions, in “Black Eyes and Broken Hearts” the coach is narratively rehabilitated. He is shown knowing how to talk to another racist coach and protecting a Black player from “worse” racists and being arrested without cause – in a scene that strongly suggests that he will become the victim of police violence. The Black player he offended forgives the coach.

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    This neat resolution to a promisingly messy storyline reflects the kind of insidious logic that runs through our culture – a narrative that tries to push Black people to see that racists can be helpful to them and that forgiving them is always the most ethical things to do.

    As problematic and offensive as I think it is, I am not asking that this episode of “Friday Night Lights” be removed. Nor am I saying there is nothing wrong with blackface. Clearly, the world will not suffer if it never saw Jane Krakowski in blackface again. But I fear that removing episodes – some of which actually open discussions about racist representation – simply goes for an easy, non-substantive approach to harder questions about more dangerous racist logics and practices in Hollywood culture.