People think White Chicks is as offensive as blackface – here's why that's totally wrong

Greg Evans
Wednesday 10 June 2020 18:45
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In the current discussion around racism and systemic discrimination, in almost all aspects of society, the topic of white people dressing up in blackface is more prevalent than ever.

Right now, thankfully, few would dare to argue that wearing blackface was ever in any way acceptable and is nothing more than an offensive trope that was used to dehumanise black people.

This week, sketch show Little Britain has been pulled from a number of streaming services due to it featuring several "jokes" where both of its stars, David Walliams and Matt Lucas, wore blackface.

Although neither Walliams and Lucas have commented on the decision regarding Little Britain, Lucas did suggest in a 2017 interview that he regretted doing said scenes and that he wouldn't do it again if the show was ever brought back.

But Walliams and Lucas are far from the only people to face backlash for wearing blackface.

Prominent people from Jimmy Fallon to Justin Trudeau have faced criticism and made public apologies after images of them wearing blackface emerged online. It should also be noted that the show Lunatics by Australian comedian Chris Lilley features blackface and is still available on Netflix. To add to this, Netflix has since confirmed that both The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentleman has been pulled from its service for featuring blackface characters.

What is the history of blackface?

Blackface is thought to date back to the 1830s and was, unsurprisingly, popular in British and US "minstrel shows" where white actors would either portray black people as either simplistic and unintelligent individuals or violent predators.

This trope was only amplified with the invention of cinema with many early movies featuring white stars in black roles. Notable actors from the period who wore blackface include Laurel and Hardy, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Doris Day to name but a few.

The 1927 film The Jazz Singer saw Al Jolson play a white man who masquerades as a black man in order to achieve his dream of becoming a famous singer. It is regarded as a landmark film for being one of the first to ultilise sound and image at the same time, something that was unheard of during the silent era.

Although the film has been critically revised in recent years, in 1998 it was referred to by the American Film Institute as "one of the best American films of all time". The Jazz Singer's use of blackface is undeniably racist and likely prevented a black actor from being cast in what is now considered an iconic role. These problems, in many ways continues to exist today.

Perhaps the most shocking and unapologetically racist film of this period is DW Griffith's 1915 civil war epic The Birth of a Nation which features many black characters, all of whom are played by white actors.

The film provides an alternative take on the conflict and proposes that if slavery was abolished, black people would run riot in the United States, control the governments and create untold violence and damage. One particularly disturbing scene sees a woman jump to her death rather than be touched by a black man.

The film then proposes that the only people who can resolve this matter is the Ku Klux Klan. It is since been considered that The Birth of Nation, which was a huge box office success at the time and was even screened by president Woodrow Wilson at the White House, was one of, if not the single biggest influence in the rebirth of the KKK in the United States in the early 1900s.

In response to people, films and TV shows being cancelled for blackface, some angry white people are trying to say that 2004 film White Chicks should be retrospectively cancelled too.

*Sigh*

Let's repeat that again. People are seriously trying to argue that White Chicks, a film directed by a black man which sees two black FBI agents have to go undercover as a pair of rich white women, should also be cancelled or removed from streaming services because it is "racist against white people".

Here are a few examples of the discourse on this particularly misguided debate:

Now, we aren't going to try and pretend that White Chicks is a masterpiece of cinema (it's really not).

We're also not going to pretend that there's not problematic things about it: plenty of fat-shaming, misogyny, white people saying the N-word and some seriously dodgy storylines about date rape and drug use.

*But* it does take a pretty accurate jab at an overtly white culture that indulges itself in excess, elitism and racism.

The film finds ample time to mock those who like to pride themselves on how they are viewed in the affluent surroundings of the Hamptons and even touches on the casual racism of those communities when black people aren't around.

Furthermore, when Shawn and Marlon Wayans are disguised as white women, they rarely act like anything other than themselves and most of the mockery of white people comes courtesy of the white actors and the film's not-so-subtle commentary.

Neither of the Wayans Brothers are attempting to mock white people or portray them as something evil – the white characters do all that for them.

Also, it shouldn't be for white people to decide what white actors can and can't do, given white actors have been playing characters with different identities for ages already.

We've all seen the criticism that Scarlett Johansson received for playing an Asian character in Ghost in the Shell and then claiming that she should have been allowed to play a trans man when those roles should have probably gone to actors who fit those profiles.

Perhaps the most shocking exploitation of one particular minority by white actors are people with disabilities.

Dozens of white, able-bodied A-list stars have either been nominated or won Oscars after playing a character with a disability.

The great Al Pacino won best actor Oscar for playing a blind man in Scent of a Woman, depriving Denzel Washington of his first Oscar for his now lauded portrayal of Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1992 biography of the civil rights activist (Washington would later win in 2002 for his performance in Training Day).

So basically, white actors have played characters of different identities since the beginning of cinema, so it's hardly like the Wayans brothers can be judged harshly for what is a light-hearted parody which mostly relies on white actors in the first place.

The white characters in the film aren't dehumanised in anywhere near the same way that black people are when white people wear blackface.

Perhaps, then, we should see White Chicks as an attempt to revise the vile legacy of blackface and white privilege.

In his 2004 review of the movie for New York Magazine James Hannaham wrote:

Their [the Wayans] productions are less political than frat-boy-contemptuous. And their implicit message—blonde white heiresses are ditzy sl**s—is unlikely to prove controversial. But if these performances can be cheap (and misogynist) shots, they also have an odd potency: imitation as revenge. Audiences get the thrill of seeing whiteness portrayed as nothing more than a performance, and the titillating undercurrent of that idea: With a little makeup, anyone can be anything. And weirdly, white people seem to love it.

Thankfully blackface is nowhere near as common an issue as it used to be. And "whiteface" (eugh) really isn't a thing.

It now appears that institutions and those responsible for promoting blackface are doing their best to make up for the mistakes of the past. Yet, to claim that films like White Chicks are somehow racist towards white people because it features black stars in white make-up reduces the discussion to a petty squabble.

Also, the Wikipedia page for "whiteface" contains only 16 examples of it ever occurring in film and television history, the most recent of which was a 2018 episode of Atlanta, where Donald Glover played a creepy character that was clearly inspired by Michael Jackson. This is clearly not an issue, despite what some would like to make out.

If whiteface truly is a thing, then it would appear pretty obvious that it is a tool for black actors to have a gentle bit of fun with white culture and doesn't draw upon centuries worth of prejudice and racism, where a particular group of people who were made to look like subhumans for comedic or entertaining purposes.

So in short: please don't make this comparison, because it makes you look ridiculous and makes a mockery of the hurt that blackface has caused.

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