Every once in a while, whiteface is used in popular culture. Whiteface is the wearing of white stage makeup and dressing and acting like a stereotypical white person. While this may sound similar to blackface in its concept, whiteface is actually very different. Unlike blackface, whiteface has rebellious quality, and it is not deeply rooted in an oppressive and extremely problematic history.
The rebellious nature of whiteface is evident in rapper Tyler the Creator’s music video for “Buffalo” and in Nick Cannon’s dressing up as a “white person” to promote his album “White People Party Music” in 2014. The music video for “Buffalo” depicts Tyler himself, donning whiteface and hanging from noose, which is attached to a tree branch. The branch breaks, and Tyler falls from the tree and starts to run away as a lynch mob of angry black people is coming toward him. This is meant to represent a reversed version of the lynch mobs that were responsible for the hanging of so many black people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These lynch mobs consisted of white people who were trying to maintain their power over black people by terrorizing the recently freed African Americans. This is an example of whiteface being used to make a statement against the oppression of whiteness. Rather than using a white actor to depict the person being hanged, Tyler actively chose to use whiteface in order to portray a white person himself. By switching the roles of white people and black people in this instance, both the use of whiteface and the lynching in the video become an act of rebellion rather than an act of oppression and hatred. This music video did not receive very much backlash, and aside from being described as “controversial” by a few music magazines, received very little from the media.
Nick Cannon’s whiteface, other the other hand, received a more
significant reaction. Cannon, unlike Tyler, donned whiteface in a photograph to make a joke to promote his upcoming album. Cannon defends his use of whiteface, stating that he was just “doing a character impression,” while “Blackface is about oppression.” Cannon argues that blackface is rooted in hatred, while whiteface is mostly as comedy.
Taking into account the stark differences between whiteface and blackface sparks some questions: Is whiteface racist? Is it acceptable in our society right now? What makes whiteface so controversial?
To understand whether or not whiteface is racist, let us first examine exactly why blackface is decidedly racist by examining its origin. Blackface was born in the art of the minstrel show. The first minstrel shows were musical acts in which white actors would portray African-Americans by painting their faces brown in the mid 1800’s. The first to do this were the “Virginia Minstrels” in 1842, seen pictured below.
As we can see, this image is a racist depiction of the essential qualities of black males; the pictured men have huge lips, are positioned as animals might be, and seem to be too stupid to even know how to use their instruments. This is the nature of Minstrelsy — it depicts the “essential” qualities of African-Americans, confirming stereotypes held by white folk and entertaining them in the process. Clearly, blackface was used as a means by which to further marginalize the black race and assert its inferiority.
This is the difference between the racism inherent in blackface and the nature of whiteface; while whiteface certainly plays on stereotypes about Caucasian Americans, it is not used in order to affirm whiteness as inferior to blackness or any other race or ethnicity. In fact, this would be a literally impossible task in modern American society where so many structures are in place in order to perch whiteness comfortably atop the racial hierarchy. Thus, while it is true that whiteface is used to employ stereotypes comedically, it is certainly not racist because a white face could never be inferior based on its color in our society.
When asking whether or not whiteface is racist, one should first ask whether anti-white racism is even real. To answer this question, whiteface functions as a perfect case study. Racism is not simply discrimination based on one’s race, as those who might claim that whiteface is racist may believe. Racism is a belief that a race has essential qualities which make it inferior to others and is employed to assert the superiority of one’s own race. Just as neither Nick Cannon nor Tyler, The Creator are acting as black supremacists when they paint their faces white, nobody is suggesting that the white race is inferior when they talk about white privilege.
- Lee Owen and Lexi Stern