Let’s compare two instances of contemporary blackface

by danbrooks

Scandalously, all these girls are actually Kulap Vilaysack in whiteface.

Now that Twitter and an HBO sitcom have finally convinced me that racism exists, I see it everywhere. It’s like when you first learned who Black Eyed Peas were: you thought that you were being followed by a child reciting nursery rhymes while someone tried to drop pinball machines on her, but actually that’s a song. Racism works the same way. It’s everywhere and bad, but some of it is also maybe kind of okay. It so happens that the last month in popular culture has given us two examples of blackface, one of which is the bad kind of racism while the other is okay—by which I mean okay, still probably bad. Video of Ashton Goddamn Kutcher after the jump.

There’s Ashton Kutcher getting paid a kabillion dollars to do the same Indian voice as your boss. The producers of this ad—which appears to be for both a dating site and potato chips, in a synergy that can only lead to disappointment—saw fit to put Kutcher in heavy brown makeup for his role as a Bollywood mogul, while he remains pristinely untanned for his turn as an outlaw biker. Das racist! That this spot somehow made it to the internet through layers of corporate oversight is a testament to how deeply ingrained The Indian Voice is as a comedic archetype. They also had no problem with the effeminate gay character, but apparently neither does anyone else. That kind of prejudice is over now, anyway.

So Pop Chips/EveryoneAlone.com screwed up. Their ad is racist, probably because A) they pinned their hopes on the acting genius of Ashton Kutcher and B) their blackface failed to make it clear that they were actually indicting blackface. Compare to what ran on 30 Rock a few weeks ago:

First of all, “I believe you can catch a rainbow in your hat,” is a genius line. Second, the premise of Alfie ‘n’ Abner is that popular entertainment used to be extraordinarily racist—a conceit that, by definition, is anti-racist. Like Bamboozled, it is blackface about blackface. Unlike Bamboozled, however, it still relies on a white person who is doing blackface for comic effect—along with Tracy Morgan, who is funny here because for once he is not doing his own makeup-free version of same. If you put your hand over half the screen, you have the leaked party video that ends John Hamm’s career. So the question is, can this video be simultaneously an acknowledgement of historical racism and racist?

Here we enter the confusing land of ironic racism, a topic our recent LA Times article managed to both allude to and ignore.* Probably because we were among the first Americans to be taught in school that racism is bad, jokes about racism—in which the joker draws attention to the absurdity of a racial stereotype by ironically advancing it—are especially popular with people of my generation. As with all irony, the danger of such jokes is that they depend heavily on context and intention. It’s like the old joke about how all jokes about black people start,** and also like the way your friend started saying the n-word ironically and then wound up saying it regular when he dropped an aquarium on his foot. The habitual purveyor of ironic racism risks losing the irony and keeping the habit.

Context and intention are epiphenomena, whereas racism is formal. That’s essentially the position Andrew Ti takes over at Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus blog, where he contends that “pretty much all direct satire about racism done in mainstream entertainment suffers from one critical problem: Most people who see it understand the message, but—surprise, surprise—some people are stupid as fuck.” Ti doesn’t specify who these stupid people are, but he argues that the potential for satires like Alfie ‘n’ Abner to be taken out of context makes them racist, res ipsa loquitur. Basically, the narrow swath of NBC viewers who don’t know about the cultural history of blackface but do recognize catfish and rainbow catching as racial signifiers will see Hamm in blackface and confirm their worldview.

Ti’s argument is convincing, but it is also a reducto ad absurdum. By invoking his theoretical audience of morons, Ti shifts the standard for evaluating what is racist to a perspective that does not consider context or irony. In so doing, he collapses the distinction between “racist” and “racial.” Context and irony are real things, though, and I do not think that Alfie ‘n’ Abner is racist. The jokes are about racism, which does not make them a kind of racism any more than why did the chicken cross the road? is a kind of travel.

Or so I thought, until I considered what the sketch would be like if Tracy Morgan weren’t in it. If it were John Hamm and the guy who plays Kenneth—who for technical reasons would have to play Kenneth—Alfie ‘n’ Abner would be a different experience. Probably, it would seem racist. This conclusion suggests a new rule for ironic racism: it’s not racist when black people do it. And you know what? That’s racist. If that seems unfair to you, pick an acre of cotton for free and then have sex with Thomas Jefferson.