Features | Surface blackness

Tiana Reid challenges recent black representations in the media

Blackface is the new black. The theatrical darky blackface caricatures that portrayed blacks as dimwitted coons and loyal Uncle Toms and advanced whiteness as the norm are generally thought of as a thing of the past, a tragic but far-off memory of racism in North America.

But no, blackface is the new black in contemporary media. From fashion editorials to television shows, images of white people with painted-on black faces and/or bodies create new images of and resurrect the old minstrel blackface from racist history. In August, the television series Mad Men, which is known for playing with historically racist and sexist depictions, featured character Roger Sterling in blackface serenading his wife. And back in 2006, a blackened Kate Moss was featured on the cover of the Independent for an initiative to draw attention to HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Nonetheless, this past month of October may have been the blackest of them all. First came model Lara Stone whose entire body was painted black in the October issue of French Vogue. Then, on the Australian variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday a group of blackfaced contestants frolicked around in the “Jackson Jive,” a parody of the Jackson Five. Finally, supermodel and talk show host Tyra Banks transformed her America’s Next Top Model contestants into different ethnicities during a “biracial” photo shoot.

Don’t be mistaken that these are simply elusive publicity stunts in the far-off world that is entertainment. Post-Halloween, it’s not hard to come across blackface right here at home in your friends-of-friends’ Facebook photos. Whether or not these Halloween costumes are innocent fun or racist appropriation has also been all over the media. Namely, white University of Toronto students dressed up as the Jamaican bobsled team, and Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Whitney Isleib showed up at a party as Lil Wayne.

When did this become fair game? When did it become okay to trivialize race and identity by flirting with skin colour? McGill Ph.D.candidate in Communications Studies Cheryl Thompson says that “There is a perception of racial equilibrium.” With post-race as the current buzzword in race relations and a black man in the White House, it may seem that it’s not a big stretch to create the fantastical idea that we live in a colour-blind society.

The response to white-as-black representations has been far from outrage. In French Vogue, the white Dutch model, Lara Stone, was painted black for a fashion editorial. The reactions that whirled around the media and blogosphere were mostly raised eyebrows, not outright offense. Not too long after, the November issue of V Magazine also featured Russian model Sasha Pivovarova in blackface. White models in blackface are racist depictions that go beyond cultural insensitivity. These so-called fashion-forward magazines are heading back to the pre-Civil Rights era – and hardly anyone is complaining.

Painting white models black for the entertainment of a majority white audience is more than distasteful. McGill Communications Studies professor Carrie Rentschler affirms that “These are racist forms of representations because of the pasts they draw on.” By depicting blackface in fashion, the media is drudging up historical racist imagery of buffoonery that dates back to a time when political inequalities were standard.

There’s a disconnect in the fashion industry when white models’ bodies are painted black as the latest trend and, at the same time, black models have a hard time getting hired. It’s no secret that the fashion industry lacks diversity and representations of different ethnicities. A crucial question arises: why not hire a black model instead? Interestingly, the same issue that featured a faux-black Lara Stone had not one black model, despite the fact that this was French Vogue’s “supermodel” issue.

The consumption of blackness by white people perpetuates the appropriation of black culture. “When you look at racial identification as purely style, what does that say about experience and difference? It erases it,” says Rentschler. Sporting black like it’s the latest fashion statement adds fuel to the fire of an already fragile media environment that has a documented lack of black representations.

Blackface in fashion magazines is often dismissed as neither racist nor offensive, but rather as a case of art for art’s sake. For some, it’s difficult to dismiss that white people painted black is a controlling image that shadows minstrelsy. “These are harmful representations because they are part of a social order that punishes blackness and values whiteness as supreme,” says Rentschler. Blackface in magazines “decontextualizes race and difference and turns it into something to play with and to consume. It’s using blackness as a signifier of playfulness and exoticism.”

Whereas the reaction to blackface in fashion editorials was minimal, the “Jackson Jive” skit immediately received flack for its obvious racist representations, and mostly because guest judge Harry Connick Jr. spoke on air of his disapproval. “We’ve spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that, we take it really to heart,” said Connick Jr. The “Jackson Jive” skit could have fit into a 19th-century Deep South minstrel show – and in this case, that was recognized.

However, the fashion editorials in French Vogue and V were considered ambiguous images and thus not publicly viewed as explicitly racist. Rentschler explains: “It’s hard to critique these images because the response is turned around. It’s you that’s the racist because you see racism in these images. Racism becomes a problem of one’s consciousness.”

Why then are these representations of blackface in fashion not being challenged more vigorously? When it comes to outrage over the “Jackson Jive” skit and relative indifference toward models in blackface, Thompson thinks gender has something to do with it. “It makes a difference that these were white males. White women can get away with a lot,” says Thompson.

These representations of blackness are hardly being criticized as much as they should. In Spike Lee’s 2000 satirical film Bamboozled, which explores the impact of a modern minstrel blackface television show, Lee comments on our present-day apathetic culture.

White performers used blackface in minstrel acts to ridicule black culture and blackness, and to humiliate and demoralize black people as a whole. The main aim was to entertain by emphasizing black inferiority and perpetuating negative black stereotypes. From the Tom, to the tragic mulatto, to the mammy, to the coon, onscreen representations of black people have been downright disgusting. A quick Google Image search will reveal the traditional and mortifying blackface caricatures with exaggeratedly plump fire-engine red lips, bright white teeth, black paint, and wide googly-eyes.

What may be more revealing as an explanation for insouciant responses to contemporary blackface is the lack of historical reference points for many people. Thompson sees a generational divide as one reason for the lack of awareness. Youth today, not having grown up experiencing the overt racism that she did, have “no sense of history, no sense of that struggle.”

Not enough critical attention is directed at popular entertainment, including what is produced, written, and directed by and for blacks, for example Tyler Perry’s work. Lee sees a hair-raising similarity between the black television shows of today and the racist ones of the past. “I think there’s a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery. I see ads for Meet the Browns and House of Payne and I’m scratching my head. We’ve got a black president and we’re going back. The image is troubling and harkens back to Amos ‘n’ Andy,” says Lee. What’s troubling is that Perry’s success, as a black film producer, is unparalleled, yet his regressive images of plump mammy characters and stammering black men have striking comparisons to minstrelsy.

In conjunction with the reemergence of blackface in the media, there has also been renewed interest in the commercial recognition and representation of blackness in mainstream media. Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair attempts to address issues concerning black hair practices. At first glance, it seems promising that the dialogue is even taking place at all. But Rock’s infotainment skims the surface and misses the opportunity to discuss, among others, issues of economic oppression, racial identity, and the cultural, social, familial, and community-based importance of grooming.

Similarly, Disney is set to release the animated film The Princess and The Frog, featuring the first black princess in its 86-year history. While it seems like a long overdue and positive event, the film is already receiving criticism due in part to Disney’s record of racist and sexist stereotyping.

In the New York Times article by Brookes Barnes, “Her Prince Has Come. Critics, Too,” the princess’s prince is denounced for not being black, because for some, this is Disney’s way of saying that a black man is not worthy of princedom. William Blackburn, a former columnist at the Charlotte Observer said, “Disney should be ashamed. This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.” Barnes also notes a key drawback: “We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog?”

Like Disney, Mattel has also found a way to capitalize on black identity. The recently released black Barbies from Mattel have curlier hair, fuller lips, different skin colours, and wider noses, which to some, is an improvement from the first black Barbie, Christie, who was introduced in the sixties and was basically a white Barbie painted black.

Representations like Mattel’s new black Barbies and the black Disney princess are important because “commercial culture is the place at which we look to find ourselves,” says Rentschler. But do these representations challenge stereotypes or simply reinforce them? “Is this recognition of black femininity or is it the same hypercommodified and hypersexualized representations?” asks Rentschler. Because of the magnitude of control and power at play in media representations, Thompson takes a stance that is very anti-representation. “The more something is commodified, the more it doesn’t mean anything,” says Thompson.

The struggle to find an authentic racial identity is exacerbated when corporations and media conglomerations are the ones constructing blackness and commercializing race. Why are corporations shaping the black narrative and experience? Thompson laments that “[The black community is] not defining black. You have to tell your own stories. We’re allowing someone else to give us a representation instead of us trying to form our own.”

How then are we to understand black identity in the media? In the past, when black people struggled to find any representations of themselves in the media, they had to make a grassroots, community-based definition of blackness. In the present-day, however, even representations coming from the black community itself, such as Rock’s documentary, can limit other dialogue. Because racism is so pervasive, and exists within a dominating power structure, it can become a way of thought that black people themselves can perpetuate through their own narratives.

Beware of seeing the potential progress in increased black representations because they tend to mask the truth. The fundamental issues are those that deal with the racialized class politics of our society. The real indication is systemic and deals with over-incarceration, violence, criminalization, unemployment, and poverty, all factors of daily life for the black and disenfranchised. A 2008 New York Times article affirmed that more than one in 100 American adults and one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars. Concordantly, incarceration rates for black women overwhelmingly surpass the rates for white women. “There is a history of public discourse of deviance in the black family,” says Rentschler.

W hat you choose to consume sends a message to the producers of these black representations. Corporations won’t produce what isn’t being sold. Although capitalism can lead to the commodification of black identity, it also gives the consumer the power to influence what’s being produced. Our intertwined histories, realities, and lived experiences cannot be ignored. Acknowledging racism in our lives, and being critical of mass culture, rather than turning a blind eye to racist representations, is one part of the larger struggle for equality.


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