A misguided backlash over blackface
I’m struggling with where our national discussion on race relations has turned in the month since the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. What I had hoped would be a meaningful dialog about police reform and racism has, in many ways, devolved into just another skirmish in the so-called “culture wars.”
One subject that has been getting a lot of attention lately among Hollywood types is blackface. While I believe the effort to eradicate this horribly demeaning practice is well-intentioned, I also think it has taken on more attention than it deserves. Two late-night hosts, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, have both had to apologize for painting their faces black 20 years ago in order to impersonate celebrities who happen to be black, such as Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock and Karl Malone. Also, scenes or entire episodes of popular sitcoms from the past 15 years have been eradicated from streaming archives because they showed white actors with faces painted black. One of my favorite shows, “The Office,” had one of its episodes edited for this reason. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about — to see it in context — but it has apparently been scrubbed already, so I can’t even judge for myself whether I believe it was truly deserving of elimination.
My worry is that the self-appointed enforcers of political correctness don’t know how to distinguish between satire, good-natured parodies and actual racist callbacks. “The Office” was great because the writers knew how to poke fun at our entrenched prejudices and stubborn insensitivity. Michael Scott, as played by Steve Carell, was a sexist, slightly racist and homophobic buffoon, but like Archie Bunker before him, he was also lovable and good for laughs.
From what I know of the two Jimmys — Kimmel and Fallon — nothing about them screams racist. I’m sure they’ll think twice about ever putting black makeup on again, but I don’t think their comedy routines from 20 years ago should be a mark of shame. To me, anyway, they are light years away from the blackface minstrel shows from the early 20th century (many of which were advertised in old issues of this paper).
Of course, as a white person, I might be hopelessly naive when it comes to this topic. But, as someone who is genuinely interested in racial justice, I see it as a massive distraction at a time when we as a society should be focusing on much more important goals, like reducing the number of black, brown and white people who are killed during encounters with police (without eliminating the police). That’s a tougher task to tackle than simply erasing old TV episodes, but, sadly, our culture likes easy fixes.
OUT FOR A WALK