One of the constant battles I see being waged online is (sadly) over race relations. The former majority, now finding its way or trying to, has taken it upon themselves to be quite militant in their calling-out of peers and institutions over matters of race.
It can be a little cringeworthy at times, but I do prefer it to the alternative. Case in point, this week media darling Jimmy Fallon was called out for wearing blackface in a SNL sketch where he portrayed Chris Rock. The incident was over a decade ago, but the reaction to it is hot.
Blackface has puzzlingly been a topic du jour for a few years now. The first time I personally remember there being backlash to it was when Ted Danson attended an event in blackface on the arm of Whoppi Goldberg. And, if my memory serves me correctly, that was pre-internet. At any rate it was pre social media.
There has been no shortage of blackface scandal since. Photos from private parties, comedy skits, movies… the list involves big names who should, at some base level, at least be aware of how the press works and try to take a safer course in their behavior.
Blackface’s origins, which I understand are tied to minstrel shows, represent a negation of a culture. White folks would like to pay to experience an entertaining display of black culture, even if steeply flawed and poisoned by stereotypes, so long as its performed by white folks. They made an entire culture the clown: a characterization they had no agency in guiding, gained no benefit from, and suffered from the negative propagation of misconceptions. Blackface, in that form at least, is a bigoted endeavor.
So what about actors having some fun? Fred Armisen playing Obama, because he allegedly had the best sense of the impression? Or Robert Downey Junior playing an actor playing a black soldier in a mockery of Hollywood hubris? Or, in this case, Jimmy Fallon?
The topic boils down to two other hot concepts: white washing and cultural appropriation. The former is when Hollywood employs the same logic used in minstrel shows - we know actor X.Y. will sell tickets and while the part was written for a person of color/culture, we will use them. It is the substitution for all colors with white proxies. The latter is when the experiences and beliefs, even the lives, of a culture are mined for use without their benefit, permission, or technical supervision.
I have to ask myself - does Jimmy Fallon portraying Chris Rock fulfil any of these highly negative goals, or is it just crude humor? Comedy is difficult. We want it to shock and ratle taboos but it has a great power to harm and offend. Some of the worse bullying is defended with “it was only a joke.”
This inner debate extends to matters outside of late night talk show hosts as well. For our book club, we have started reading Lovecraft Country. It is a wonderful book by Matt Ruff. It takes the racism inherent in the works of HP Lovecraft, pulp/weird fiction, and America and turns it into an allegorical adventure tale. The book pulls no punches with its account of racism in America. Unlike other works, I do not get the feeling that the negative energy and violence directed at the black characters is secretly some sort of wish fulfillment by the author - hiding behind the art to exorcize some terrible character flaws. But there is a question that lingers, because Matt Ruff is a white male. In 21st Century America, is it bad form for a white male to speak for the black experience in this way? I do not have an answer for this.
When I put my feelers out into the world wide web for viewpoints, I quickly regret it. The loudest and strongest detractors seem to be, on surface, folks of privilege no different than me. Then there are folks of color who agree that it is, in one degree or other, offensive. Then there are the folks that say there are bigger problems to face. Then there are folks who say they aren’t offended. And then come the next loudest group, white folks staunchly and categorically defending their team.
It makes it uncomfortable for me if I dwell on it too long. Are my own opinions wrong? If the offended party cannot come to quorum on this, how can I have any sort of final answer? Am I allowed to write black stories and/or black characters? What steps should I be taking to make sure I do it right? Is it any different than writing females? Gays?
I was recently made aware of editing services that will review your text and dialogue specifically for matters of discriminatory material, intended or otherwise - from descriptions, to portrayals, to dialog. It seems like a very useful tool, if not another delay and expense for a guy like me. However, the cynic in me couldn’t help smirk that most of the services I found in my initial research were in fact other privileged American whites.
I am not here to ask if blackface is essentially awful or just tacky, nor do I propose an answer to whether a white author can present and by its merits personally benefit from a story about black characters and black experiences. I just wanted to reflect that these questions are still debates that rage in daily life here in American in 2020. If you have an opinion on this, and can offer it in a level-headed and respectful manner, I should like to hear it.
Above all else, let’s just love others as we would ourselves, or perhaps even better. Sometimes the way we do this is by pausing to look at the world from another angle, and ask ourselves if something that is comfortable and accepted isn’t also hurtful. And just like with all good science, use the new data to change our actions. Ask, test, review, change, repeat.