We’re pleased to feature a post by Macon D.  About himself, Macon writes, “I’m a white guy, trying to find out what that means. Especially the ‘white’ part. I live in that heart of the heart of American whiteness, the ever-amorphous ‘Midwest.’”  Macon’s blog, Stuff White People Do, is an excellent source of insights about race and racism.  We thought this post grappled nicely with the complicated phenomenon of (literal and figurative) black face, while addressing a difficult and contemporary form of humor:

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chicagolakeoutdoor

Chicago-Lake Liquors
Minneapolis, Minnesota
(click here for larger version)

On the absorbing and informative blog Kiss My Black Ads, Craig Brimm responds to an ad campaign currently being run by Chicago-Lake Liquors, a store located in a largely black area of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The images above are apparently billboards, and I’ve embedded below the three TV commercials also included in this campaign. (If you can’t view them, they’re also running now on the store’s site here.)The ads include “black” language, gestures, body language and so on, as performed by white, middle-class men (why no white women?). As I understand it, the joke is that these white folks are making fools of themselves by imitating black people.

Are these ads racist? Or are they making fun of racist white people? And if they’re “only” doing the latter, does that really make the contemporary blackface here any more acceptable?

Does context matter here, with Chicago-Lake Liquors located in a largely black area? Given that, perhaps the ads allow black people to feel superior in a way to these white people, by laughing at their silly efforts to get hip by acting “black.” Maybe, but that seems like a stretch.

Speaking of context — while blackface is largely condemned in the U.S., because it perpetuates and solidifies racist stereotypes, it serves other purposes in some other countries. Take a look at these other examples; as a United States citizen trying to become more aware on a daily level of racism and my own whiteness, I have increasing trouble ever seeing blackface, literal or otherwise, as acceptable. And yet, I’m a strong believer in the meaning-generating significance of social, historical, and cultural context. Many things have different meanings in different contexts.

Last summer, I posted a video in which British TV star Tracey Ullman donned blackface, in order to satirize (effectively, I thought) self-aggrandizing white people who adopt African children. Now, though, I’m not so sure this skit is worth applauding, despite the good point that I think it makes.

Is that acceptable blackface?

Then there’s this recent blackface performance by a Turkish newscaster. Apparently, according to ScoopThis.Org, this is a complicated joke of sorts, mostly meant to pay homage and gentle respect to Obama, and also to criticize Turkey itself for recent dealings with the U.S. BuzzFeed adds this: “Apparently, it’s actually a metaphor for the way the Bush administration ‘darkened’ the face of the Turkish public, and how the anchor hopes Obama will turn things around.”

Within a Turkish context, is this acceptable blackface?

Whether your answer is “yes” or “no,” it does seem worthwhile to interpret this performance in light of the strong probability that Turkish society in general has little sense or understanding of the particular, deeply racist history of blackface in the United States.

I’m also reminded of the Japanese teenagers who used to dress up, and maybe still do, in a fashion known as Ganguro (ガングロ), which literally means “black-face.”

According to a Western video report on this phenomenon, this look does not come from people of African descent; instead, its origins are traceable to a Japanese comic’s donning of blackface in order to clown around in a loincloth in the guise of an aboriginal Australian.*

ganguro2


So, I do find the Chicago-Lake Liquors ads racist. Even though the satiric butt of their central joke is clueless white people instead of black people, their version of blackness is insultingly cartoonish. They also basically revive what amounts to an American white supremacist tradition that deserves to die, blackface minstrelsy.

Still, I wonder — if we consider geographic, sociohistorical context, are some versions of blackface okay? Perhaps even, given its urban location, the contemporary American version in Chicago-Lake Liquors’ ad campaign?

* As Restructure! notes in a comment, Ganguro is one of three such modes of teenage blackface identified in the video; Yamanba, which means “mountain hag,” is the name of the one that’s tied to a comic’s racist parody of an aboriginal Australian. Jonathan Ross, the narrator of the video, notes that when Ganguro appeared after Yamanba, “many thought it was simply an homage” to the comic’s “beloved creation,” but apparently it’s not.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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