Dy(e)ing to be White

Whiteface Performance in Postracial America

by R. N. Bradley

10 May 2011

Marlon Wayans and Shawn Wayans in White Chicks (2004) 

Late 20th and 21st Century Whiteface Performance

Pryor’s comedic routines pushed the envelope for race consciousness and reshaping racial discourse for its time and opened the doors for similar later 20th century performances. Proceeding acts like Eddie Murphy also donned whiteface to peep into the secret world of white folks. Other demonstrations of African American cultural expression, like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) take on blackface minstrelsy directly. It’s important to stress the significance of Lee’s interpretation of the minstrel show as a vehicle of revenue that was accepted because it was African Americans depicting themselves in blackface.

The social climate of Bamboozled’s release, a stark contrast to the blackface minstrelsy culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, consisted of yet another turning tide of race relations in the United States: the complete avoidance of public racial discourse.  I stress “public”, here, because unlike previous decades where race signifiers were obvious components of the social landscape, late 20th and early 20th century public culture faces the challenge of talking about race without talking about it directly. Whiteness, while blatantly revered in the past, now relies upon purposeful concealment to sustain hegemonic privilege.  Part of this course of action included heavy investment and commodification of nonwhite cultural practices like hip-hop and other modes of black popular culture.

Comedian Dave Chappelle’s Chappelle’s Show, debuting in 2004, is one such instance of mixed audience popularity. Chappelle, aware of his position to both perpetuate and deconstruct race markers, challenged audiences to consider their social-economic and social-racial outlooks on American society. With skits like the race draft, Clayton Bigsby (a blind black klansmen), and racial pixies, Chappelle consistently pushed the envelope for and about race in America.

Immediately following Chappelle’s Show is the release of Aaron McGruder’s animated series The Boondocks (2005), an evolution of McGruder’s same titled comic strip. The Boondocks, a chronicle of the Freeman family, reflects the shift in the Freemans’ maneuvering of a radically shifted social climate of their predominantly black Chicago neighborhood to a very white Woodcrest and, on a larger scale, the implications of (white) suburbia on the contemporary black identity and experience.

Particularly striking about The Boondocks is the treatment of whites’ appropriation of black culture. Although later seasons show young white girls’ assimilation into Hip Hop culture through dance demonstrations and slang (which is another column for another day), McGruder creates two staple white characters, Ed Wuncler the Third and his BFF Gin Rummy, who he uses to tease out the dynamics of race and power in this peculiar moment of American history. Ed and Rummy, voiced by comedian Charlie Murphy and actor Samuel L. Jackson, respectively, physically and psychologically embody white privilege. 

Murphy’s character Ed is introduced to viewers the pilot episode of the series.  The grandson of the wealthiest man in Woodcrest, Ed is welcomed home with a party after his tour in Iraq. Surrounded by watercrest sandwiches, champagne flutes, and mini orchestras, Ed’s entrance quickly halts the grandeur of the garden party with a very gutta “the fuck ya’ll lookin’ at?!” Stunned, guests whisper amongst themselves trying to figure out how to respond.  They quickly recouperate by politely clapping and smiling. Because of his wealth and white hegemonic masculinity, Ed is given a pass. 

Perhaps most fascinating about McGruder’s use of Ed and Rummy on the show is how he challenges this generation of viewers to consider the very real implications of whiteness and race consciousness. Following in the trajectory of Schuyler and Pryor, McGruder both questions and engages in white supremacist discourse. McGruder’s approach, however, differs because he is aware and subjected to the peculiarity of post civil-rights race discourse in the United States. Unlike Pryor, who grounded many of his comedic sketches on the residual impact of slavery on black Americans both during and fresh out of the black liberation movements, McGruder pulls from a “settled,” generation(s) later post-civil rights experience that is shifting to a deemed postracial social landscape.  McGruder presents an intentionally murky and blurred storyline to reflect the interdependency of blacks and whites in 21st century social-political and racial discourse.

Eddie Murphy in Coming to America (1988)

Eddie Murphy in Coming to America (1988)

Ed and Rummy’s voice in The Boondocks subverts the early 20th century passing narrative of the African American literary tradition to speak to how many whites, especially young white men, feel the need to mimic blackness in order to authenticate and enjoy it. This type of racial performance, however, is commonly influenced by stereotypical representations of African Americans. The intentional avoidance of the complexity and multi-faceted black experience in America fosters not only an institutionalized cultural racism but a systematic erasure of their unique experiences in the name of colorblindness. McGruder attempts to make these concealed actions visible. Not only does The Boondocks include entitled white characters voiced by culturally and physically recognizable black performers, it also troubles markers of contemporary blackness . If white folks can sound and act black, what do black folks sound and act like?

* * *

Whiteface is often situated in satirical or humorous spaces because of the freedom to exaggerate and obscure reality. There are instances, however, of whiteface in more “serious” spaces like Ice Cube’s short lived documentary-esque reality show Black.White.  (2006). As Michael Rogin astutely points out in Blackface White Noise (1996): “motion picture blackface…inherited the function of its predecessor [blackface minstrelsy] by joining structural domination to cultural desire, it turned Europeans into Americans” (12). In similar fashion to blackface minstrelsy’s attempts to voice the African American experience and solidify white superiority, whiteface attempts to voice the contemporary white experience from a marginalized perspective.  This, in turn, updates Rogin’s observations to turn blacks into Americans.

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