Today’s blog post is written by Lauren Hudson, a recent graduate from Sarah Lawrence College where she concentrated in studio art and political geography. She is currently a NYC Civic Corps Member serving at the NY Writers Coalition and a studio monitor at the Gowanus Print Lab. She lives in Brooklyn.
Minstrelsy is long regarded as an antiquated relic of the American entertainment industry. Films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gentlemen’s Agreement, and even White Chicks are guilty of painting faces and appropriating cultural stereotypes for audiences to consume. While the practice is now frowned upon, the nuances of ‘brownfacing’ have since filtered into aspects of society which exist outside of theater.
Two examples of minstrelsy have amassed national attention and criticism within the past month. The first comes from Victoria’s Secret, an underwear retailer who recently marketed a “Sexy Little Geisha” lingerie outfit (complete with chopsticks and fan!) as part of its ‘Go East’ campaign. The offense is obvious; the company has appropriated a monolithic version of ‘Asian culture’ for their underwear, giving little regard to its implication or reception. However, the ‘garment’ also reveals more complicated ideas of both race and women. Consider the role of a geisha: a woman who epitomizes femininity, grace, and silence as she caters to her male clientele. The “Sexy Little Geisha” costume not only replicates the ideas of cultural femininity and submissiveness that we associate with ‘Asia’, but gendered expectations of submission that has become at once exoticized and fetishized.
Similarly, a high school in Waverly, New York has also stepped into minstrel territory via a pep rally performance. Apparently, a skit (which should be mentioned, was approved by the school’s staff prior to the rally) parodied Chris Brown beating Rihanna, complete with both white ‘actors’ in blackface. No faculty or staff member ever interrupted the performance and given the obvious blackface, much of the attention has seemed to fixate solely on the blackface–not the depiction of domestic assault. As with Victoria’s Secret, the offense has tangled roots. Not only is it problematic to parody race, it is extremely problematic to parody and dismiss the undertone of violence against women. Again, the feminine context that underscores appropriation has gone unnoticed.
The racial parody at Waverly High School is nothing unfamiliar. In fact, millions of the most ‘high brow’ and politically correct Americans endorse such parodies when they tune in to Saturday Night Live every weekend. Most either don’t realize or choose to ignore that we endorse ‘brownface’ daily. Are we really ready to draw lines in the sand about ‘good vs. bad’ brownface? If so, where does such a line exist between high-school students imitating celebrities and Fred Armisen imitating the President (a role that was only recently replaced last month by black cast member Jay Pharoah)? Though the two do not share the same context, the excuses for each are similar: it’s just for fun. It seems as though we are trapped between a racial rock and a hard place, where rallying against one kind of minstrelsy implicates the other and critics run the risk of dismissal for being ‘annoyingly politically correct crybabies’. Somewhere along the way, minstrelsy was given a carte blanche because of its ‘in jest’ nature.
This brings us to Halloween, a holiday right around the corner that calls for comedic costumes. Predictably, some Halloween costumes have often toed the line between satire and outright racism. Case in point: all those ‘illegal migrant’ costumes that crop up every holiday (and Cinco de Mayo..) with their ‘border patrol’ costume counterpart.
One refreshing antidote to this trend has been Ohio University’s S.T.A.R.S organization (Students Teaching Against Racism in Society). Last fall, the group launched an ad campaign titled “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” which depicted students of racial minorities holding pictures of their costume counterparts. Predictably, the ads received fierce support and criticism. Supporters have praised the organization for speaking out about an uncomfortable truth that has long existed, while others have reduced their message to petty whining (link slightly NSFW).
What’s disturbing still is not the blatant disregard for other people/cultures/races, but the entitlement which perpetuates and forgives such behavior. There seems to be an extreme denial among brownface defenders that racial parody holds a deeper historical meaning. Each instance isn’t an isolated incident, but rather emblematic of a larger attitude. Racial minorities are automatically regarded as the passive group, who instead of getting angry should just accept and ‘get over it’. The imbalance of racial power means that since racial minorities are the ‘other’, they should be mocked and furthermore, accepting of this universal truth. Should they be displeased by this then they are just sensitive wet blankets. After all, we’re supposed to be living in a post-racial society now, right?
As one former student of Waverly High School notes, “There’s nothing wrong with blackface. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up as a black person. Black is but a color.”