Call me crazy, but I was lead to believe that the entire point of blackface was to mock and ridicule an entire race of people. The same goes for yellowface (East Asians), redface (American Indians) and brownface (anyone with brown skin who isn’t Black). Yet some people still don’t see a problem with it. “It’s a caricature. It’s part of the character’s costume. They’re not racist- you’re just being too sensitive.”
Racefacing- a term I’ll use for this post -is inherently racist. Blackface perpetuated negative stereotypes about Blacks, though apologists would say that it brought African-American culture to mainstream America (re: White America) and that blackface performers gave Whites a sense of nostalgia for the antebellum South (re: the happy slave mentality). In minstrel shows- affectionately referred to as the “old time nigger show” by Mark twain -blackface was common:
“White performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork or greasepaint, dress in outlandish costumes, and then perform songs and skits that mocked African Americans. Some of the most famous songs in American history— Dixie, Camptown Races, Oh Sussanah, My Old Kentucky Home —began as minstrel songs.” [source]
Then there were the blackface stock characters:
“Jim Crow was the stereotypical carefree slave, Mr. Tambo a joyous musician, and Zip Coon a free black attempting to ‘put on air’s or rise above his station. The parody in minstrel shows was often savage.”
More characters included the tragic mulatto, the mixed-race woman who felt as if she did not belong with Whites or Blacks; and the mammy, the asexual, extremely dark and overweight* loyal servant who loved her White babies as if they were her own.
Just the exaggerated look of blackface was offensive. It gave rise to the darky iconography, those classic images of Blacks as dolls and on packages of candy or watermelon. Bright red lips and white eyes pressed into pitch-black skin.
In interesting fact about blackface is that Whites weren’t the only ones who performed in it. In the beginning they were, but Black performers soon embraced the art form- and it doesn’t make it any less racist. Blacks donning blackface doesn’t surprise me because one of the biggest offenders in racefacing is the “Smize” queen herself, Tyra Banks. She obviously sees nothing wrong with it because this happens three different times in three different seasons of “America’s Next Top Model. The most recent cycle was when the models honored the late King of Pop by dressing up as him, which required their skin being painted for some.
I’ll get to that Michael Jackson cosplaying later, so let me move on. In a way (and I could be way wrong) the other racefaces are different because they were not only used to mock Native Americans, East Asians and others, but they were also used to prevent actors of these backgrounds from portraying themselves, even if the roles were “positive.”
Here are some commonly found characters that played a part in shaping people’s view. All are from Racial and Racist Stereotypes in Media:
- Yellow Peril/Yellow terror: Possibly the most famous. “Asians were viewed as alien and a threat to wage-earners, and a movement began that had the goal of making California racially pure.” Today, I think the term is also used in fear of East Asia (specifically China) becoming politically and economically stronger than Western countries.
- Dragon Lady: Also known as “Me Love You Long time”, the Dragon Lady is “aggressive or opportunistic sexual beings or predatory gold diggers. Non-threatening stereotypes include servile Lotus Blossoms, China dolls, and Geisha girls.”
- Chief: Self-explanatory. He was often seen with a war bonnet (though my scant research into Indian headdresses has revealed that the majority of Native Americans who wore them were Plains Indians).
- Princess: “The Princess stereotype was created to legitimize female Native Americans as potential mates for Whites.”
- Noble Savage: “A primitive man living in harmony with the natural world and unspoiled by civilized vices.” I’ll take it a step further and say that this is a character that stays true to both sides: uncivilized (Indian) and civilized (White/Europeans) and was pretty much the peacemaker.
- Squaw: Like the princess, she usually marries a White man, usually a settler and almost always by accident (those whacky Indian marriage customs!)
Brownface is a much larger group, and the website I referenced from only has Latinos as examples. Yet it’s the same as the others: mocking individuals and limiting roles to White actors.
Before anyone jumps on me, racefacing isn’t about people wearing makeup or using skin bleaching to make themselves lighter (that’s a whole ‘nother conversation). It’s also not about white people getting tans just because they want to. This is about portraying races you are not and how the history of it makes it offensive.
But if you don’t agree on how racefacing is offensive, let’s look at it this way: getting a tan so you can portray a dark-skinned character is illogical. Korra is a brown-skinned Asian- she is not a White girl with a tan. It’s the same for those America’s Next Top Model photo shoots. Race isn’t solely based on skin color; it’s also the texture of your hair, the shape of your lips, eyes and nose. Just because there’s face paint to portray different races, doesn’t make it right. I can’t speak for every P.O.C., but if you’re White and you want to cosplay as Korra or another character different from you race, I don’t care. Just leave the paint at home; you don’t need it to “become close to the character.”
And because I see this coming miles away, “What about White Chicks?”
That movie was intended to ridicule White girls, but whiteface’s history is nowhere near as bad as the others are. One of the cool things (I’m assuming) about being White is that it is almost impossible to be racially stereotyped. Stereotyped by class- white trash, redneck, hick -yes, but not by race.
*There’s nothing wrong with these traits in-of-themselves, yet the media always portray them in such a way that it is negative.
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