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Thursday, November 14, 2013
The New New Blackface
Lily Allen. Fact Magazine
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
When it comes to race and racism in America it's been a
freaky month to say the least. This week alone there was news of a
man who won an election in Houston, Texas by "pretending" to be black. We
Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old black woman shot
dead by a white homeowner in Michigan when she knocked on a door seeking help
after a car crash. The gun, the middle-aged homeowner said, accidentally
went off. In the woman's face. He was not charged. He hasn't
even been named. The ever-irrelevant Sarah Palin continued her greatest
hits tour when during
a speech she said, "when that money comes due -
and this isn't racist, but it'll be like slavery when that note is due."
If all of that wasn't enough for the 50 states to handle, a North Dakota white
a nice surprise on national television.
"Sweetheart, you have a little black in you," a black talk show host announced
to him. There was
Richie Incognito, the now-suspended Miami Dolphins
offensive lineman with an at-best checkered history who lived up to his
occupational billing by leaving racially offensive threats on the voicemail of
the cell phone of black teammate Jonathan Martin. Mr. Incognito said that
he wasn't a racist. "My actions were
coming from a place of love."
Into this noxious brew stepped Lily Allen, a white English pop star who
re-entered the music scene after a three-year hiatus, with the
video "Hard Out
Here (For A Bitch)". The video, in which Ms. Allen is coiffed and
engineered to look phenotypically like a black woman, is a satirical take on the
"Hustle & Flow" film song that won an Oscar several years ago, on Robin Thicke's
"Blurred Lines" but mostly on black female dancers who shake their behinds in
rap videos, and the misogyny rife in the music industry. Ms. Allen's first
fateful mistake in the video is to assert a false equivalency, implying that a
woman who has a brain can't also shake her behind. Among other things,
it's an insult to multitasking women everywhere.
In the video, a gleeful Ms. Allen, who days before its release took to Twitter
to post a photo of a black penis, stands fully clothed as
female dancers behind her bend over luxury cars twerking their bodies,
stimulating themselves and splashing milk on each other. The whole
spectacle is akin to a slave mistress delighting in and deriving entertainment
and pleasure from watching her slaves writhe around. All that's missing is
her whip to spank them into action. If you've seen
"12 Years A
Slave" you will note the scene where enslaved blacks are told by New
Orleans plantation owner Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) to dance after a cruelty
is inflicted on one of them.
The Lily Allen video is an example of the further objectification and indictment
of black women for artist self-promotion and gain. The video itself reeks
of white privilege, as do the comments of Ms. Palin and Mr. Incognito. The
carefree appraisal and appropriation of black people's pain, enslavement and
personal incorrectness (as with the abominable intra-racial use of the "n-word"
as "affection") is now increasingly on display in America as some sort of white
backlash or last stand, if you will, as the country becomes a majority black and
It's brazen and disturbing, these blasé, casually racist comments, attitudes and
blackface, whether in the form of
blackface of Trayvon Martin or by
Julianne Hough, whose Halloween costume, she
said, was an homage to a black female character on the Netflix series "Orange Is
The New Black". (Ms. Hough has since apologized.) This repeated
demonization, which Cornell University associate professor
Nowlie M. Rooks wrote about today in Time
Magazine, seems to intensify these days.
These incidents make it easy to create a show called "Blackface Is The New White
(21st Century edition)". The era of Southern redistricting (in Virginia
and elsewhere), voter suppression, and curbing of the Voting Rights Act, is
accompanied by this renewed crop of dastardly, weirdly vaudevillian acts of
"Everybody wannabe black but nobody wants to be black," says comedian Paul
Mooney's character in Spike Lee's
"Bamboozled", which chronicles the history of
Black people are not a joke but some white entertainers seem bent on making
blacks the laughing stocks for their ill-gotten gains. These
trivializations of blacks by whites are troubling enough, pleasing fantasy for
some but a jarring reinforcement of white supremacy, especially in the wake of
realities faced by black actors like
Rob Brown, stopped, insulted and detained
recently at Macy's, put behind bars at a police precinct after buying a $1,300
watch at the store in New York. He is suing, and hopes countless other
blacks come forward to share their stories. (Mr. Brown's lawyer quoted
figures indicating that 90% of those stopped at Macy's were black or Latino.)
Before Mr. Brown, this year Forest Whitaker was humiliated at a New York City
deli. In a store overseas Oprah Winfrey was asked if she could afford a
$38,000 handbag. Both appear in
Neither appears in
Lily Allen is hardly the first instance of a white entertainer insulting blacks
as a group.
Michael Richards used the nuclear word on a
noisy black patron during a stand-up routine. His
apology was bizarre and uncomfortable.
Mel Gibson. There's
Charlton Heston during Michael Moore's "Bowling
For Columbine". Paula Deen.
John Mayer. Years ago Elvis Presley said
that the only things black people needed to do were to buy his records and shine
his shoes. Bing Crosby, Ginger Rogers, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Judy
Garland and many others appeared in blackface. Some of those actors and
musicians can be seen in their Halloween get up in Mr. Lee's aforementioned
A number of white celebrities have stepped forward to blast some of these
horrendous insults and statements, including Martha Plimpton,
whose tweet last month was clear and succinct.
Joan Walsh, Salon's editor in chief and a liberal political commentator and
gave words of advice to "my white brothers and
sisters" this week on MSNBC regarding Sarah Palin's insensitivities.
No one is saying that white entertainers cannot make jokes about black people.
Any assertion to the contrary undermine the issue at hand. Saturday Night
Live, hardly the pinnacle of diversity where black women are concerned, made
excellent points in its ribbing of blacks in several sketches, on a night, no
less, when Kerry Washington, a black actress immensely successful on television
with the highly popular "Scandal", was its rare host. Bill Maher routinely
hits and sometimes crosses the line with humor (or worse) about blacks, notably
President Obama, who invited a conversation on race earlier this year in
this video after George Zimmerman's acquittal.
In May Mr. Maher was brought to task by Wayne Brady, who challenged him, after a
statement where he foolishly implied that Mr. Brady, was somehow not black
clip of Mr. Brady is worth watching.
There are black entertainers who participate in the wholesale degradation of
black women and of themselves in music videos and in everyday life. And it
must be called out and condemned by blacks. It must end. Black
people, regardless of position, specifically those who make a sport of calling
each other "n", need to stop. They need to stop thinking that reinventing
such a pernicious, reprehensible word of slavery into a "term of endearment" is
somehow revolutionary or a reclaiming of power over the word. Stop.
It isn't. It is small. It makes you look foolish and ignorant.
Foolish to the point where Mr. Incognito, seen on a TMZ video spouting it, can
co-opt it as a way to deflect from any racist tendencies, using it to defend and
inoculate himself from the charges.
Incredulously, some of Mr. Incognito's black teammates on the Miami Dolphins
hailed their white colleague
as an honorary black man, according to Armando
Salguero of the Miami Herald. Jonathan Martin, their teammate whose father
is white and mother black, was somehow considered not as black as Mr. Incognito.
This is truly bizarre, abhorrent and deeply distressing, something the
loquacious sports commentator Stephen A. Smith alluded to. It's also a
function of the remnants of the indoctrination processes of centuries-long
slavery and its after effects as much as it is sheer stupidity. It's as
stupid as John Boehner's tan. George Hamilton would agree. Richard
Cohen, however, wouldn't. Mr. Cohen, who
flaunts his own racist sentiments, shouldn't be
anywhere near such a prestigious newspaper as The Washington Post.
When some black people speak of incidents of blackface it's pathetic for some
whites on the defensive to point to the Wayans Brothers' awful film "White
Chicks" -- a guilty pleasure for some -- as an example of racism by blacks.
"Why doesn't anyone say anything about those black actors doing whiteface?", is
often something heard from some whites online. It's an insulting notion,
especially in an institutionally racist society that has forever denigrated and
discriminated against blacks, that "White Chicks" is somehow a "reverse" racial
make-good or equalizer, as if perpetrated in Desmond Nakano's "White Man's
Burden" fantasy America. To whose who indulge this notion, I ask: what
about "Soul Man"? Or "The Jazz Singer"? Or "Birth Of A Nation", a Ku
Klux Klan recruiting tool?
Sadly, the troubling incidents catalogued here function as the only type of
chronic conversation we as a country seem to have these days about race and
racism. In America the conversation always seems to blurt out in this
awkward and offensive way. Instead of having honest, frank and necessary
conversations with each other across the racial spectrum the discourse is a
litany of irresponsible statements and racist remarks. Then we
talk. The remarks, I think, signal a cry for help.
I can say that not infrequently, a few whites -- complete strangers -- will
speak to me in an urban lingo, as if I'm a rapper or if I'm somehow conversant
in urban black linguistics. Why wouldn't a clear, calm and direct
interaction be easier? Without the stereotypes and caricatures? Then
Lily Allen arrives on the scene on her imaginary white horse only to step in
more doo-doo under the guise of making a statement against misogyny but winds up
being more racist in the process. Who on Planet Sanity can step in to do
an intervention? Miley Cyrus? Nicki Minaj? M.I.A.? Jay Z
(who refused to back off his contracts with stores that discriminated against
blacks)? Stephin Fetchit?
Rob Brown, who can be seen on HBO in "Treme" and recently in the film
was told, in his fine debut on film ("Finding Forrester") in a genuine way, by
the film's title figure "you're the man now, dawg!" In that cozy, cutesy
Hollywood fantasy world, the Scottish brogue of Sean Connery might be warm and
embracing. But what would Forrester have said to Mr. Brown at Macy's?
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