Research Paper: Diversity in Today's Society

Pages: 10 (3678 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Topic: Black Studies  ·  Buy This Paper

Blackface: The Use of Whites to Portray Non-Whites in Popular Culture

As cultural norms have evolved, one of the most interesting things that minority groups have done is to reclaim things that have typically been evocative of racial stereotypes and use them for empowerment. There are many examples in popular culture, with perhaps the most obvious and controversial one being the reclamation of the word "nigger" by African-Americans in certain forms of popular culture, particularly hip-hop music. What is seen as liberating to some is seen as continuation of centuries of racial subjugation by others, so that the African-American community is starkly divided about that issue. Not all vestiges of racist practices are considered quite as offensive and controversial in modern times. However, one that is considered extremely offensive is the use of blackface in entertainment so that whites can portray non-white characters. An examination of the use of blackface throughout the history of modern entertainment reveals that it can be an effective means of using satire to highlight racial inequality and the fallacy of racial stereotypes, but that, because of its racist history, its ineffective use can actually perpetuate the very stereotypes it attempts to satirize.

This paper explores how the use of blackface has evolved over time, from an initial way to have whites fulfill negative stereotypes about minorities to a way for entertainers of various cultures to use color as a means of making commentary about racial relationships in America. First, it begins with a historical investigation into the use of blackface in American entertainment, including vaudeville and the early film industry. Next, it looks at how blackface fell out of favor as civil rights evolved. From there, the paper examines how blackface expanded to other cultural groups outside of African-Americans. Then, the paper looks at more modern versions of blackface, where the fact that an actor was portraying someone from a different ethnic group has become an intentional part of the message the entertainer is attempting to convey. Finally, the paper focuses on the most recent revival of blackface, which occurred in the late 2000s and continues to this day.

In order to understand what blackface means in modern popular culture, it is important to examine what blackface meant in historical popular culture. Blackface was a part of minstrelsy, which was a type of entertainment that came to popularity in the early 1800s. Minstrelsy combined two types of entertainment genres: black musicians who sang on the streets and white actors who portrayed blacks, generally during smaller performances at larger shows. This evolved into its own type of entertainment, so that a minstrel show was one that featured performers, either blacks or white people disguised to portray blacks. It is almost impossible to overstate the impact that minstrelsy had on the formation of American popular culture. "The history of blackface minstrelsy does not just 'touch' every form of popular music; it is linked to the very formation of antebellum popular culture" (Mahar, p.1). The minstrel was the least expensive, most widely available form of popular entertainment available in antebellum America, and, as such, helped shape the nature of popular culture, so that one can see elements of minstrelsy that remain, today, in most types of purely American forms of entertainment. The time context is important when one considers that the early 1800s saw a rise in negative public opinions about slavery, although not necessarily a rise in the belief of the inherent equality of man. Therefore, the minstrel show evolved to feature two types of African-American characters: "the urban black dandy [and]…the southern plantation slave" (the Center for American Music). These representations "featured stereotypes caricatures rather than genuine depictions of blacks, and were usually demeaning" (the Center for American Music).

Blackface was not just part of the minstrel show; it was the defining element of the minstrel show. "The primary convention that identified the minstrel show as entertainment was burnt cork makeup" (Mahar, p.1). The effect of this makeup was not only to give performers darker skin, but also a dirty look, which contributed to existing racial stereotypes. "The combination of burned, pulverized champagne corks and water (sometimes petroleum jelly or a similar substance) served as a racial marker announcing that a single act or an ensemble offered what were selected aspects of (arguably) African-American culture to audiences interested in how racial differences and enslavement reinforced distinctions between black and white Americans" (Mahar, p.1).

However, blackface served a role beyond demeaning African-Americans. Even at its youngest, blackface was sometimes used as a means of satirizing the dominant, conservative social norms, while, at the same time, appearing to reinforce those norms. After all, the burnt cork not only served to make white actors appear African-American, but also to disguise them, so that they could use "parody and burlesque as techniques to satirize majority values while still reinforcing widely held and fairly conservative beliefs (Mahar, p.1). The use of the makeup also allowed the actors to place some distance between themselves and the material they were portraying, which helps highlight the uncomfortable nature of racial tension and race relations in the U.S., even in the antebellum period (Mahar, p.1).

In the antebellum period, minstrel shows evolved into a standard three- part structure. The first part began with a walkaround, which featured the performers singing and dancing on the stage. The troop then sat in a semicircle, performed musical numbers, and exchanged jokes (Padgett). Part two was like a variety show and was "a precursor to vaudeville. It included singers, dancers, comedians, and other novelty acts, and parodies of legitimate theater" (Padgett). During this part of the act, a blackface character would often engage in a pompous oratory that revealed him to be a fool (Padgett). The final part of the show as a one-act play, which would frequently focus on plantation life, portraying the life of a slave as carefree. This was such a critical part, not only of a minstrel show, but of the slaveholding culture, that after Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, "minstrel shows appropriated the major characters for sketches that changed the abolitionist themes in the original into an argument for the supposedly benign character of slavery" (Padgett).

While the point of the minstrel show was entertainment, it is critical to keep in mind that the themes of the minstrel show were intentional. "Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865), pro-slavery Whites used the racist stereotypes as a way of countering the abolitionist movement." (Padgett). This was because minstrel show perpetuated two of the myths that were commonly used to defend the practice of slavery: that blacks were unable to care for themselves without white intervention, and that life on plantations was happy for slaves (Padgett). Therefore, when slaves were emancipated, and it was no longer necessary to defend the practice of slavery, one might have anticipated a decline in the demand for minstrel shows. On the contrary, the end of slavery actually increased demand for minstrelsy, as many whites, confronted with a changing social dynamic and a world in which African-Americans were beginning to be able to assert some person and political powers, desperately clung to any cultural fixtures that would reinforce their racist ideals.

Moreover, emancipation brought racial issues to areas of the country which had previously not experienced the type of racial tension that existed in the antebellum South. This was, in many instances, due to a total lack of familiarity between whites in some areas and African-Americans. Rather than lead to a decline in demand for minstrel shows, emancipation actually led to an increase in demand. "With the dramatic increase in the popularity of minstrel shows in the years following emancipation, Whites continued to wear the blackface mask in performances that would serve to define the meaning of blackness for many Americans who by choice or geography had little contact with Blacks" (Padgett). Therefore, for many, the minstrel show and blackface served, essentially, as their only real introduction to African-Americans, which helps partially explain why some race-based stereotypes have been so difficult to erase.

While minstrel shows and blackface performances were generally lighthearted and comedic, their underlying racial stereotypes and messages about the inherent inferiority of non-whites had a negative impact on the perception of blacks in society as a whole. Moreover, not all uses of blackface were even superficially benign. Perhaps the most hateful use of blackface in the 20th century was in D.W. Griffith's movie the Birth of a Nation. The film was unapologetically racist, built upon a storyline featuring a predatory African-American male who seeks to rape and ruin a white female in the days following the Civil War. The film was considered the catalyst for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which continues to use the film as a means of recruiting new members. In the film, Griffiths employs blackface in an interesting manner. Background African-American characters were portrayed by actual people of color, while the main African-American characters were portrayed by white actors in blackface… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Diversity in Today's Society.  (2013, April 23).  Retrieved July 18, 2019, from

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"Diversity in Today's Society."  23 April 2013.  Web.  18 July 2019. <>.

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"Diversity in Today's Society."  April 23, 2013.  Accessed July 18, 2019.