Today’s Ruby Assembly blog is not what you think it is. Of course, it will have the hi-jinks, word games and memorable pictorial you’ve come to associate with us. But it is more properly a piece of writing on the hidden and more apparent stereotypes about race and culture that are part of our daily lives. And how you may unwittingly be participating in a little cultural ‘blackface’ or stereotyping of your own. So. Let’s begin with some free-association.
What cultural cues come to mind when you see this bootylicious picture?
Under the editorial name of ‘No Diggity’, it’s clear from my most excellent blingy earrings, brash Yankee’s t-shirt and (quite frankly) fabulous dance moves that I’m channeling ghetto style. Although I’m engaging explicitly, joyfully and knowingly with this aesthetic, it is identifiable with both a race and a social demographic. One that wider culture – in particular across social media – mimics routinely for larfs , resulting in an endless stream of girl-powaaah booty-slappin’, put-a-ring-on-it, ghetto-fabbolous, aint-noone-got-time-for-dat humor, tags and memes. My question is – how does this popularist written and stylistic mimicry of both a culture and a race differ from blackface?
What I’m doing here looks cute and fun, doesn’t it? It’s cute and fun and humorous, and might remind you of moments when you’ve waggled your finger in the air at your girlfriends with raised eyebrows, quipping ‘Oh NO YOU DI’INT!’
But maybe it’s not so cute. Maybe it is re-iterating and echoing negative stereotypes about culture, race, class and aesthetic for our own humor and enjoyment. Or maybe it’s lighthearted, silly fun. Could it ever be a mixture of the two?
As you can see from the array of ‘blackface’ or culture stereotyping presented below, not all forms of mimicry are alike, equal or asking us for the same level of social reflection or critique. What do you think about the use of culture stereotyping? Is it always offensive to you? Do some ideas hold value as critiques exploring hidden prejudice? Is discomfort or dissent something that we should avoid? In my opinion, it is not.
Australian performer Chris Lilley as variously S’Mouse and Jen Okazaki from his series Angry Boys. Racial stereotyping, or an exploration of prejudice and cringe culture?
Documentarian, author and social commentator John Safran in blackface for Race Relations. How does Safran’s Jewish identity and participation in edgy cultural practice influence the acceptability of his performance here?
Beyonce in blackface. Is this OK, or ‘more OK’ than someone else in blackface? If so, why do you think that is?
White Chicks – blackface in reverse. I’ve not seen this film, but couldn’t not include it in the mix of media.
Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Immediately troubling and clearly different in tenor from other representations of culture. Was this ever really OK – and when did it stop being so?
Laurence Olivier in Othello. Would the casting of a white man ‘blackfaced’ in a classic play ever be considered today?
Robert Downey Junior in Tropic Thunder. Is this a current-day Mr. Yunioshi moment?
Miley Cyrus twerking.
Conflating a performer’s character or action with their personal attitude doesn’t always make sense. Ignoring context when considering cultural critique or mimicry is also dangerous. Representations of culture, race and class should always be mindful of their utility. Does the uncomfortable statement create useful discussion, thought or reflection?
If so, it has a place and a context.
If not, it’s merely racist or classist parody.