“I know what dude I am. I’m the dude playing the dude, disguised as another dude!” Those are the words spoken by Kirk Lazarus, Robert Downey’s blackface character, in the 2008 blockbuster movie Tropic Thunder. Why didn’t more people go crazy over this portrayal? Why weren’t there more protests?
In April 2009, Gokhan Taskin, a news anchor on the Flash TV network in Turkey, did a report on Obama while wearing blackface. Looking straight into the camera Taskin said “Welcome, Mr. Obama. You took our hearts with your hospitality. We appreciate your kindness. We will do whatever America asks of us, as friends. Now, we ask the same of you.” The anchor was playing off a Turkish proverb that means, roughly, that a person who asks for a favor darkens his face, but a person who then refuses to grant that person a favor has an even darker face. Regardless of the cultural implications in Turkey, to Americans, particularly because Obama is our first African American president, this is vile and disgusting.
More recently, In Australia, a troupe of medical students performed on that country’s version of The Gong Show as the “Jackson Jive” in really, really, black blackface, and huge afros. The lead performed as Michael Jackson in “whiteface”. The crowd loved it, but an American judge, Harry Connick Jr., knew better. Harry stopped the show until somebody apologized.
And now the highly respected French Vogue has jumped in on the fun. Famous photographer Steven Klein shot Dutch supermodel Lara Stone in blackface makeup for a spread styled by French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld. The magazine also praised Lara for the “radical break with the wave of anorexic models” she represents. Carine is a size 4. Is this a joke? I wish it were. Not only did French Vogue use racist blackface, they continue racist hiring practices. Not one of the models was a woman of color. No Tyra Banks, no Naomi Cambell, no Alek Wek, no Noemie Lenoir. This is a horrific slap in the face of all women of color. Is there a sign on French Vogue’s office that says “Aucune femme de couleur ne doit s’appliquer”? (Women of color need not apply)
Blackface is based on the myth of the trickster, Jim Crow, an escaped slave. In the early 19th century, a young white actor named Thomas D. Rice learned a popular African-American song-and-dance routine based on the myth of this trickster figure. But before he would go on stage in New York City, Thomas would black out his face with burnt cork. His audience loved it, and Thomas became an instant sensation, and thus sparked the minstrel act.
Now fast forward 180 years from the days of slavery and Thomas Rice, and everywhere around the world people are performing in blackface. Maybe it’s because Robert Downey didn’t catch much flack for Tropic Thunder. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Obama is the 44th POTUS. Maybe it’s a combination. Whatever it is, it’s a very disturbing trend.
Although the current tone of blackface seems to be less malevolent than its predecessors, the thought behind these creations are just as insidious, hurtful and harmful. As Obama would say, let this be a teachable moment. This is the 21st century, and we should know better. Let us put those destructive and malevolent, divisive relics into the mental and spiritual shredder, so that we will become a more perfect world.