Friday, February 15, 2019

Why is it okay for Eddie Murphy to wear whiteface in Coming to America but not okay for Jimmy Kimmel to wear blackface as Karl Malone?

If you hadn't read my post on Wednesday, I've been thinking about blackface recently, and questions have popped into my mind about it. To give you a little context, in case you haven't seen the movie Coming to America, this little comedy gem came out in the 1980's, starred Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, and it featured the both of them playing multiple characters (all for comedic purposes).
Eddie Murphy is unrecognizeable in this
role do to makeup effects (whiteface).
One of the characters that Eddie Murphy plays is a white Jew (which kind of has its own implications in today's hyper-sensitive society, but I'm not going to get into that in today's post). Also I would like to note that this movie has been greenlit for a sequel that's supposed to come out next year, and it even has a release date (I think the original cast is all cominb back for it as well).

At the time of the movie's release (I was still a kid), I thought Eddie Murphy's portrayal was a credit to his acting chops. But now that I look back on it in time, and especially through the lens of recent calls for Jimmy Kimmel and Sarah Silverman (another comedian who has done blackface) to up and apologize for performances that took place years ago, I wonder why it's okay for Eddie Murphy not to be asked to apologize for his portrayal of whiteface.

As far as Jimmy Kimmel's portrayal of Karl Malone goes, I've never actually seen the skit. But I've heard from people I know who have, and they said it was really funny. Okay, so that established to me that it was done in the name of comedy, just like Eddie Murphy's portrayal. However, blackface remains incredibly problematic. It's been talked about on Saturday Night Live, it's been talked about on my blog regarding cosplay, it's been talked about on the New York Times in an article called "Why won't blackface go away?" and "Race is not a costume." The national conversation right now could be categorized easily as a firestorm (that also happens to be a circular firing squad for the democratic party--I only say this last part because the rules don't apply to a group that seems okay with offensive things).
Jimmy Kimmel portraying Karl Malone (the makeup
effects are considered blackface)

In trying to answer the question in the title of this article I'm writing, i.e., why is whiteface okay but blackface is not, it all seems to boil down to one thing: reverse racism is not possible (or is not a thing).

Here's how a good friend explained it (and I had pretty much assimilated all this in articles that I had read, but he really frames it well):
"My understanding of the issue is that blackface is seen as highly problematic, because it has very explicit historical ties to slavery and minstrel shows, which were fundamental tools of historic white supremacy. Blackface evokes very specifically an incarnation of structural racism in which white people parody black stereotypes to dehumanize them. For similar reasons (although admittedly a lot less talked about), yellowface also comes up occasionally as highly problematic (think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's). As to why whiteface is okay but blackface isn't...I think that's a complicated question. The easy and short answer seems to be that blackface entails racism, and since reverse-racism isn't a thing, whiteface isn't inherently problematic because its an inversion of power structure, not a continuation of oppression. That's tricker though if its Jewish people being portrayed, because antisemitism is a major issue."
And on the issue of reverse racism, it seems to be that the "support" (and yes I've argued about this in another post too) lies with the fact that white people have privilege in society that stems from hundreds of years of institutionalized power. Here's a quote from a blog called The Root, and it's written by author Michael Harriot (I'll link it HERE) that postulates the following:
"If white people built a time machine, went back to 1619 and subjected themselves to slavery, built America into a superpower without compensation or reparation, attended inferior schools, faced double the unemployment of blacks and were killed, lynched and incarcerated disproportionately by black people, I would agree that black people were racist, even if I didn't do anything to them personally.
"But that's a fictional situation that's never going to happen. It's so preposterous there isn't even a term for it.
"Actually, there is:
"Reverse racism."
So basically, unless the above example ever happens then "Reverse Racism" is not a thing and can't be a thing. So it ends up being okay that Eddie Murphy wear whiteface, but not okay for Jimmy Kimmel to wear blackface. What determines this has nothing to do with the individual actions of these people, actors, or comedians, but historical context. In other words, the definition of racism is explicitly tied to history itself, which makes a whole bunch of "other" questions pop into my head. For example, if a person is ignorant of history and has never educated themselves or been given the benefit of education, is it even possible for them to be racist? Or would they just be "biased" in a mean way toward certain groups (as in, "That person is just mean to Korean people" and not "That person is racist toward Korean people). And then of course there's got to be the argument that one cannot use "ignorance" as an excuse to shield oneself from accusations of racism.

In an over-simplified way, the subject of "racism" and "reverse racism" almost seems like an argument about bad karma (which I don't believe in by the way because I'm atheist). However, some people who do believe in bad karma define it as this: "A cosmic law that happens by itself wherein people who inflict harm in the past have that harm revisited upon themselves at present or in the future in another form." In other words, you did this bad thing so this excuses us doing bad behavior to you because it's all payback. Some people might even go so far as to say "an eye for an eye" or "revenge" or "there is a debt owed that has yet to be repaid." Just to clarify, I'm not saying that any of these things could be so boiled down to a sound bite that is expressed so simply. However, on the historical context of how white people treated black people, there doesn't appear to be any notion of forgiveness, hence reverse racism cannot be a thing. It's too big really for me to even wrap my head around, so I'll just say the majority support seems to lie with the notion that some things are unforgivable, and leave it at that (I've no idea whether this idea is right or wrong). It makes me wonder if there's a breaking point somewhere...where the one that owes reparations gets fed up with pouring reparations into a debt that cannot possibly be paid back. What happens at that future hypothetical point? Does anger just burn on forever? Or does our society just become more entrenched and polarized? What happens then?

This is a topic that our society continues to grapple with, and there are rightfully very strong feelings about it. I love observing how different people deal with it, how celebrities and other public persons get held accountable for it, and figuring out why some people will burn in its fire while others remain untouched. Maybe who burns for it and who doesn't is another example of how public support has the final say in everything (embracing the fact that morality, immorality, rightness, and wrongness take a backseat to sheer numbers of people who have the power, and whatever it is that they support is the rule of the day...until it isn't).

For what it's worth, I think that blackface has always been wrong. I also think that whiteface and yellowface and any other "face" just don't have any place in society anymore, and they shouldn't be done (regardless of whether people think whiteface or yellowface is not inherently racist). However, I wonder if anyone else thinks the same thing. I guess only time will tell.

6 comments:

  1. Reverse racism is something MAGA hat wearers whine about when someone complains about racism. But it probably is real though black people, Asian people, and Native Americans certainly have justified historical reasons to hate whites.

    One thing I wonder when I see commercials for CBS's The Neighborhood: why is it OK for Cedric the Entertainer to hate his new white neighbors but if he moved to a mostly white neighborhood and they hated him that's racism? I'm sure they never mention that because it's just a lousy CBS sitcom.

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  2. There's no such thing as reverse racism because it's all just racism. By definition.

    The only thing I can say about your question is that one is "punching up" and one is "punching down" and you should never punch down.

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    1. Oh I love that simplistic way of boiling it all down. Thank you so much, Andrew. It's rather brilliant. One is punching up and one is punching down. Bravo. :)

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  3. Andrew said it. I can't remember who talked about this, but it's a comedy thing. Punching up is funny. Punching down is bullying.

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  4. I think the very term "reverse racism" is politically correct garbage. Racism is the bigotry a member of one race holds against people of another race. It is a single word definition sufficient unto itself, and it can be applied to the member of any race who exhibits such bigotry.

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