Let’s compare two instances of contemporary blackface

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.


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  1. Hi-fucking-larious. From now on that is how I will describe all Black Eyed Peas songs.

  2. Where is the line at which racial sensitivity, or the proclivity to call things racist–if you would take that as the same thing worded differently, diminishes the ability of humans to treat each other as part of their in-group? Or treat other humans as equals. Stated another way, what is the goal of becoming racially sensitive, or aware, or identifying behaviors which are racist, and how do we monitor our distance to that goal?

    Knowing how you might answer these questions would be a helpful framework for understanding the nuanced discussion you’ve advanced here in this post.

    Also, I read this recently, and you might enjoy it.

  3. For me, at least, the point of being racially sensitive and identifying racist behaviors is to lurch towards not being racist. One premise of this hope is that there is a whole lot of racist stuff that goes on that I, at least, do not notice. Another premise is that I want to stop being racist at all levels, including the ways I do not recognize. In this view of mine, better recognizing racism is an important step towards being less racist…although recognizing bad behaviors and attitudes is only a small part of a long process.

    Another view might suggest that people should not become more racially sensitive because doing so just highlights differences and drives people apart. In my experience, reasonable people of good intention can have this view. But it seems a little like solving drunk driving by avoiding swerving vehicles. I think people need to recognize a problem in order to solve it. I also have only heard white people make this argument, and I think it may seem more reasonable to people who benefit greatly from the status quo than to those who suffer from it.

    Increasingly, however, I don’t think ideology alone is very helpful. Certainly, I can imagine instances where, or approaches to, identifying racism that are counter-productive. But assuming good execution, I think people need to recognize a problem in order to work toward solving it.

  4. Dan Brooks,

    I think you’re a little too sensitive for your own good. And if this post is 100% serious, then I feel bad for your distorted view of racism.

    Before I get started, I’d like to make two points:

    1. Racism exists and it is truly awful.
    2. I don’t condone Ashton Kutcher as a comedian or an actor.

    Now, on to your post.

    The examples that you gave are not racism, they are jokes about race and jokes at the expense of racism.

    Now, before you jump on the wording “jokes about race”, let me explain. The world is full of different groups of people. We all have our differences and to laugh at those differences isn’t wrong. And if you’re familiar with racism in any fashion, you’d know there’s a huge difference between the hate and racism and the examples that you’ve show above.

    Making a joke about race does not make it racist, racism is when you add hate and disapproval to a joke about race. Is Chris Rock racist when he makes a joke about black people (http://bit.ly/4s0ebK)? Is Eddie Murphy racist when he tells jokes about white people (http://bit.ly/fAMWTp)? No, talking about race does not make somebody racist. These are simply comedians pointing our differences.

    And as much as I don’t like Ashton Kutcher, his petty commercial isn’t racism, it’s an attempt at comedy (a sorry, sad attempt). Just because you’re one race, doesn’t mean you can’t attempt to act like someone from another race, for fear of being labeled a racist. In Silver Streak, Gene Wilder goes blackface to avoid the cops, the scene speaks to a lot of things (white people, black people, the absurdity of blackface), but one thing it is not is racist.

    Now, jokes at the expense of racism might be a little tougher concept to grasp. The humor in jokes at the expense of racism doesn’t come from the stereotypes of race, but the stupidity of the people wheeling the racist viewpoints (The 30 Rock skit above). The audience is actually laughing at the racist person for their perspective.

    In this clip from The Chappelle Show (http://bit.ly/AhqkT8), Dave Chappelle is a blind, black, white supremacist. Now, everything Chappelle says in this skit is about race and hatred (being a white supremacist and all) but the jokes come at the expense of racism and it’s absurd existence, not race itself.

    Making jokes at the expense of racism can be falsely interpreted as fodder by the minds of bigots, but a comedian cannot write material based on how he thinks people are going to interpret it, he has to write from his own perspective.

    In closing, please think again before labeling comedy about race as “racism”, because racism is a serious, vicious problem that is driven by hate, and should not be confused with humor about our differences.

    There’s a lot of funny, insightful stuff out there from comedians of all colors talking about their race and other races and how they differ and it would be a shame to miss it because you’re over-sensitive.

  5. If I’m reading it correctly, Adam, your comment has two main points: 1) I’m over-sensitive to perceived racism and 2) there’s a difference between racist humor and racial (that is, “about race”) humor. I totally agree with one of those points, and it is a major focus of my post. Perhaps I did not convey that point adequately, but I think these sentences from the second-to-last paragraph express the same point you make in your comment:

    “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.”

    I think white people have to be careful, though, that their joke racism is funny because it makes a truthful indictment and not because it is simply shocking. Ashton Kutcher’s Indian dude routine is not funny because it’s just makeup and a stock voice, and it’s not commentary for the same reason. He can say he’s indicting racist impressions of Indians, but the shape of his indictment is exactly congruent with a racist impression of an Indian. I think that’s the difference between the Kutcher video and Abner ‘n’ Alfie: one uses blackface and comments on it, and the other just uses blackface.

    But I also believe that white people don’t always get to decide what is and is not racist, because our track record is poor. Of the successful examples of racial comedy you mentioned, all the comedians are black except Gene Wilder. I haven’t seen Silver Streak in a long time, but I don’t remember the blackface part as all that funny. That’s a matter of opinion, of course, but I think there’s a significant difference between black comedians who play white and white comedians who play black. It’s the same reason “cracker” and the n-word work totally differently.

  6. @Adam, in paragraphs four through six of your comment you argue against Dan using a point he already made pretty clearly in grafs 5-6 of the original post.

    This and your entire comment causes me to think you misread Dan’s post and meaning. I’d give it another go. He is not suggesting that jokes about race are racism necessarily. I believe he is saying they _can_ be racist and then queries what makes a joke racial (okay) or racist (not okay).

    Your examples ignore an essential category, which is a white person making racial jokes about non-white people. Dan writes about this in his last paragraph. To me, that category is not the only one that can be racist, but it sure is an important one.

    Separately, your definition of racism suggests that only things driven by hate can be racist. I encourage you to reconsider this view, too. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many US supporters of slavery in the US felt they were doing their religious and moral duty as slaveholders. In the 20th century, American scientists suggested that there were fundamental differences in mental capacities of different ethnicities. Today, people who appear to want the best for black youth still believe they are more prone to violence and crime.

    Racism exists without malice, Adam, and it is worth considering. This is what Dan is doing. I believe you misread his post and miss his important nuances.

  7. “Making a joke about race does not make it racist, racism is when you add hate and disapproval to a joke about race.”

    I would disagree with this in some respects. Stereotypes, even ones that aren’t born of hatred or disapproval, can be racist. E.g. “asians are good at math” jokes come from a stereotype that is neither hateful nor denigrating, but it is still a hurtful one. Moreover, a straight, white, middle class male making a joke about race (or gender, or sexual orientation, or etc) carries with it a certain weight due to the inherent benefits of being a straight, white, middle-class male. It is a different thing for Dave Chapelle to play a black man in the KKK or Eddie Murphy to wear white pancake makeup and a suit than it is for, e.g., Jeff Dunham to bring out his ventriloquist dummies (a rather insidious form of blackface). Satire only flows upward; when aimed at groups that have less power or privilege than yours, it is, by default, some sort of -ism.

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