White-Face and Minstrelsy

A few days ago, Harry Connick, Jr. wisely expressed outrage on an Australian talent show when a group of performers donned black-face makeup to do a routine.

One of the funniest things is Dave Chappelle's impersonation of his friend, Chip. If you've never seen it, you're not ready for my teaching.

Anyway, Chappelle's impersonation of a stereotypical white guy is only the "best" version of this kind of act -- I've seen many other black comedians attempt variations on the theme. The Wayans' effort was less than spectacular, but you probably have seen efforts at white-face.

But as I was watching Wanda Sykes do her impersonation of her white/French wife the other day during her HBO special, "I'ma be Me," I was struck by the thought that these acts might make it fair season for good ol' fashioned minstrelsy again. Obviously, I'm not a comedian, and I'm not willing to risk making my private ideas public (taboo radar beeping?), but I can imagine a ballsy white comedian just doing a destructive impersonation of his black friend, Del'a'Onte.

Because see, Chip's obviously a ridiculous composite (and exaggeration) of all of the most egregiously white things that Dave Chappelle has observed -- a hilarious fiction, even a minstrel. The only difference has to do with power (real and perceived). You might possibly convince me that a white person doing an exaggerated impression of his black friend is "just wrong" if you argue that it's not fair for a white person to do that because white people have secret societies that meet underground at Yale and that they exchange meaningful glances and run things to the exclusion of black people and other minorities. In other words, I (white Casey) can "afford" to laugh at Chappelle's impersonation of Chip because I'm white, and this is America.

But frankly, it's an argument I'm less and less interested in hearing... I learned one thing on the playground growing up: when someone makes fun of you, you can laugh with them for a while. Once or twice. If they keep at it, you've either gotta make fun back, or start listening to NPR and hanging out in the library more, preparing yourself for a life's worth of loserhood. So keep in mind while you're making the "that's just wrong" argument, I'm more and more ready to say "Buck up, Pussy" -- because that's what white guys say to each other. I'm concerned that responses like Harry Connick's are becoming insincere -- that those expressing outrage are motivated more by an impulse to show that they are not racist ("Oh, see, I know that you're not supposed to do that in polite society!") than actually feeling appalled. Remember, many a North Carolina racist knew that it wasn't socially acceptable to say nigger long before they ceased to feel what the word means/meant.

(Where does Fred Armisen's version of Obama fit in here?)

So, I'm not saying that I and my fellow white-masons had a secret meeting at Yale this weekend, but don't be surprised if some time soon you see comedy coming from a white comedian that looks dangerously, eerily, interestingly like it did 100 years ago. Soon, somebody's going to remember that it's not illegal to tease black people, even to hurt their feelings, and that's going to be both really ugly and maybe a little interesting.


Wishydig said...

we don't need to wait. black-face is too specific a tradition to deserve all the commentary. i hear there are some people devoting entire disserations to it. but we can talk about the more general comedic form of racial mimicry, along the use of epithets and commentary regarding stereotypical traits.

have you seen lisa lampanelli? i'm not going to make any claim about her act or her importance. but watch her then then do a follow-up on this post.

Gretchen Pratt said...

Oh yeah I've seen her during the roasts... but mostly as a target of jokes about how many black jockeys are living inside her vagina or something like that. I'll check out her own act if I can find it.

Wishydig said...

she has several on netflix instant. you only need to watch one.