Is blackface always offensive?

There’s no doubt that most of the time blackface is used these days, it’s intended to offend or at least provoke. This Alas, A Blog post where white pee-wee football fans dressed in blackface to taunt their black opponents would be an example of that sort of thing.

But what about this picture of Kate Moss?

The commenters on the Alas post all seem to agree that the picture is also offensive. To me, the picture is saying we’re all humans, so we should help our brothers and sisters suffering from AIDS in Africa. It doesn’t look like an old-fashioned minstrel show, it looks like an attractive, dark woman. The straight hair (and the fact that it’s obviously Kate Moss) is the only clue that this is a white woman painted black. Clearly in the context of a special magazine issue attempting to draw attention to AIDS in Africa, there’s no intention to offend.

There’s certainly no way the same message could have been conveyed with a black model, as some commenters seem to suggest. Perhaps Africans are offended more at the idea of being represented by druggie loser Kate Moss than at this particular application of blackface, but the response to me seems more visceral: Anyone in blackface, ever, is offensive. Even the Spike Lee film Bamboozled was widely criticized for portraying blackface as “funny” (the point there was to make us laugh and then think about why we’re laughing, and I think it was done masterfully).

There’s no doubt that the selection of blackface and Kate Moss for the Independent’s cover was intended to be provocative, but is it offensive? If so, is it offensive simply because of the fact of blackface, or because of poor execution? Could this statement have been made in a way that didn’t offend? Or, is blackface simply always bad?

In Bamboozled, Spike Lee gives us glimpses of actors from the past performing in blackface, including a particularly disturbing image of Judy Garland equating blackness with ugliness. The Independent’s cover is a long way from that sentiment, but I suppose, for some people, it evokes that sentiment. What I’m still not sure of, finally, is if that’s necessarily a bad thing.

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17 Responses to Is blackface always offensive?

  1. Sar says:

    But is it illegal??

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  3. Ken Mccabe says:

    If we are to ever truly get over the stigma brought on by blackface in this country, we must get to a place where it no longer offends anyone. The fact is, that it is something that was practiced and is part of our history. It can’t be erased. We don’t live in a revisionist society and should not hide things from our past because we don’t like them. While it was an insensative and cruel practise, I don’t think that blackface can ever be used in the same context as it was back in the days of minstrelsy ever again. To be offended by the mere notion of black makeup just means we still have a long way to go. We killed buffalo almost to extinction. We all but wiped out the natives of this country. We allowed slavery for many years. we have done some very bad things in this country throughout our brief history. I for one think it is time for blacks, whites, reds, yellows and purples to get over it and move on.

  4. Kashif says:

    Due to the racist history of blackface, it is always racist when done by whites, there is no way it can been done
    without racist undertones. Some people will compare it to the movie ‘White Chicks’ but whiteface does not equal
    blackface, the latter has no racist history.

  5. Chuck Walker says:

    In anticipation of outrage. It is the intent of the role, not the color of makeup, that defines black face.
    Whenever a white actor is in a role that calls for makeup-darkened skin, (i.e. Otello) there is the underlying fear that someone will cry “racism!”

    From Wikipedia — “Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to affect the countenance of an iconic, racist American archetype . . .[using] burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes . . .” and “Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide.”

    Making an actor darker for a role should not be deemed offensive when none of this exaggeration or racist stereotype is present.

  6. For the past seven years I have been doing artwork aimed at stimulating just such a dialogue.
    My work has been both hailed and denounced and I’ve learned to accept peoples opinions without judgement,
    realizing that each has their own threshold for tolerance. Yes, blackface is offensive, but if you read your history,
    you’ll find that it wasn’t always intended to be. To the extent that it still holds such power over us, I contend
    that it does more harm not to confront it on some level. It is, nonetheless a part of our history, sad but true.
    My work can be seen at http://www.markstevengreenfield.com

  7. John says:

    I know this thread is old, but this article is somewhat apropos. In comedy, blackface is rarely criticized:

    http://www.debonairmag.com/blackface_is_funny_-_or_else.htm

  8. Anne says:

    Since this is back up top, I’m wondering if you’ve seen the new Ben Stiller film: that seems to have provoked no outrage at all–and does look very funny. I shows you that some comedians/actors are just able to work their reputations just so to be that perfect combo of edgy and ok.

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  10. jjooee says:

    i dont belive it is racist. look at the greatest blackface minstrel “Al Jolson”. he was not racist at all.
    i dont belive it should be took as racisme. =/

  11. dave says:

    That’s a new one… Al Jolson as a beacon for racial harmony?

  12. Offense is an emotional reaction, and offensiveness is not a quality of things or events. It is a sign of social and political immaturity. Eventually American Negroes will be able to ignore their detractors.

  13. jacob says:

    Fcck this bullsh!t about “whiteface has no racial history”….white people don’t you get it? Think about black people’s logic:

    1) Whiteface does not have a history of being offensive.
    2)Therefore, movies like “white chicks” will continue to be inoffensive until it has a long, ugly history.

    (In other words, whiteface will not be deemed offensive until blacks are in a position of dominance and whites are reduced to their “rightful” place at the bottom. This means whites do not deserve the same level of respect UNTIL they are the new slaves and the blacks dominate this country, which is what they think they are going to do.) So what should any average-IQ white person take away from that? Answer: WHITE PEOPLE do not deserve respect or the same level of treatment by blacks and others, until THEY ARE ON THE BOTTOM! So now ask yourself, the blacks in this country will never be satisfied until YOU, white man/woman are under the yoke of slavery or worse (need I mention the genocide against whites in Zimbabwe?) So when are you gonna stand up for yourselves? When it’s too late, and whiteface is finally considered offensive b/c your great grandchildren are enslaved? My suggestion: get licensed to carry concealed weapon and take the war to the streets… the next time your minding your own biz and a black man wants to make you his victim, take his head off. It’s self-defense, and its within the law! Blacks can’t carry concealed weapons legally b/c most of them have a criminal record… so if a black pulls a pistol out on you, he gets arrested for possession afcf and off to a lengthy prison term, and you get off scott-free! Possibly even put one of them out of commission permanently, if your aim is right. Well anyways, that’s what I’m doing. I’m taking it to the streets. My case was dismissed, judge ruled it was self-defense and the black guy is doing 10 years in prison for possession afcf with .45 bullet fragments in his chest. Life is good!

  14. lol says:

    that was the most stupid comment ever, you just embarrassed yourself so bad its funny

  15. Armentta says:

    I would like to comment on the statement Blacks should forget about slavery and move on. How can this happen, when the effects of slavery is still felt today? The lingering effects of the Willie Lynch Doctrine followed by the Jim Crow Laws are a part of recent history. The slavery in America, was probably believed to be the worst in history. Blacks were thought to be part human and part animal. Blacks were beaten, raped and made to breed with sons, relatives and even with whites for the sake of making more slaves which ultimately made this country richer. Hollywood’s “Black face”, was another example of the lingering evils of slavery. I wish everyone could forgive and forget; however, it appears that Blacks will never been treated equally and the signs of racism and slavery will always rear its ugliness. Many Blacks do not realize how Blacks were taught to divide within their very race. Willie Lynch was correct in that his doctrine will be felt for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. These are not excuses. They are the facts. Blacks are still receiving inadequate education, lower paying jobs, higher interest rates, more arrests, last to be hired for jobs they qualify,and in many cases living in poor overall conditions. Often these situations lead to bitterness ,oppression and war against each other. In the 70’s an increased of drugs shipped the Black community contributed a greater down fall. How can a race of people, displayed so negatively, overcome modern day time overcome the oppression of the past and present? As our President tries to led in the middle, by looking out for the interests of the middle class, he the most disrespected President in American History. White America will not even accept him as part of their race. America is quick to come to the aid for injustice in other nations; however, we must do some serious healing in our own country. Go figure, why Blacks can not move on from slavery.

  16. Johny Radio says:

    In the early 1900s, singer Al Jolson was the most famous blackface performer. Like Elvis Presley later, Jolson was credited with introducing African-American music to white audiences. Jolson, a Jew, identified with the suffering of blacks. He was staunchly anti-racist, had many black friends, and famously fought against anti-black discrimination on Broadway. Jolson personally opened doors for many of America’s most-loved black performers of that era. Many blacks welcomed his performances. Black audiences cried during Jolson’s blackfaced film “The Jazz Singer”, and Harlem’s black Amsterdam newspaper called it “one of the greatest pictures ever produced… Every colored performer is proud of him.”

    (this info is easily googled)

  17. omalone1 says:

    G wiz

    Why should it be offensive! If people are pathetic and it reminds them of that inferiority, then it will be, and yet, if these people were potent, these images would not be so threatening

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