What’s so wrong with people painting their face brown?

Chris Lilley’s new show features him playing a black kid from America. He plays the part with his face painted brown.  Some believe that this is courting controversy, undoubtedly, given the Hey Hey Saturday Blackface performance of a couple of years ago, it is.

I am not sure what the problem is with people painting their faces brown. Is it because racism mistakes correlation for cause, i.e. a racist position concludes that because certain acts have a correlation with certain genetically determined signs those acts are caused by those genetically determined signs? Playing out that correlation could then be seen to be reinforcing that mistake.

As I understand the argument, painting ones face brown and acting a stereotype is bad, racist, because similar stereotypes were once imbedded in law and there are some, racists, that believe that similar laws should once again be brought into effect. Painting ones face brown reinforces the stereotype and therefore gives support to racists.

The argument is strengthened by the association of the blackface performances with the racist laws known as Jim Crow laws, both were of the southern states of the US, both emerging around the same time. Wikipedia describes the characters of the blackface thusly: “buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious characters, who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language.” These stereotypes, understood as having a causal relationship to skin colour, do not seem to be too far from what I image the arguments used to justify racial segregation laws were.

Blackface repeated is racism repeated.

But isn’t a crucial distinction missed? The playing out of such correlations is not the assertion of racist logic. There is a difference between those that argue such things as carrying genetic feature x makes you do act a and those that put forward a stereotype. The first is racism, the second is something else.

The former position is wrong because it implies a fundamental estrangement between people (as subjects worthy/capable of autonomy) and, therefore, the treatment of one section of humanity as perpetual and legitimate subjects of violence. The latter might be derided as unfashionable, but it can’t really be called wrong (except in the sense in which the colour purple is wrong).

To call the stereotypes’ repetition wrong would lead to the perverse implication that criticising racism is wrong because one might raise the stereotype involved in a particular confusion of correlation with causation.

Some qualify this by suggesting that it is only in the context of criticism that it is legitimate to raise a stereotype. But, this doesn’t really change the perverse nature of a ban on presenting a stereotype.  What kind of act of criticism is one engaged in if the possibility of one being incorrect has been excluded previous to any judgement on another’s argument? If one is to genuinely criticism something then doesn’t one need to consider the possibility that the racists are right. Criticism goes much further than blackface performance, it not only repeats the stereotypes deployed by the racist, it raises the possibility that there really is a causal relationship!

But further, even if the understanding of racism presented above is incorrect, can the examples of ‘brown painted face comedy’ be called racist if they offer no value judgements? Is there a value judgement inherent in blackface?  Are there value judgements inherent in such things as the Chris Lilley stuff and that Michael Jackson parody thing from a while ago that I missed, judgements that somehow tie into the backface-ness?

Maybe one can say they might be negative portrayals but in order to do that wouldn’t one have to qualify oneself with something like: “in the context of most peoples views”.

Perhaps I am mistaking the argument being made about why blackface is bad, or maybe I am making the false assumption that lamentations about it are linked to a demand for some sort of repressive act and are not themselves simply the expression of personal preference.


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2 Responses to What’s so wrong with people painting their face brown?

  1. Della Sandage says:

    One could assume that the author of this article is Caucasian, as the reasoning behind painting one’s face black manages to escape them. Being bi racial and brought up in a white family, I witnessed first hand the differences between the way I was treated by society and how my white half sister was treated.The fact that the author addressed the issue of racism as if is an antiquated and dead practice of the past. When for those of us that are profiled and harassed everyday by police while simultaneously being denied our rights as human beings on American soil, followed around stores, feared without merit and for the most part hated by American society as a whole.
    Have you ever had to explain to your crying child why they were called a N*gger? Have you ever turned on the television and wondered why none of the actors look like you? Have you tried explaining that to a child? What do you tell your child? The sad thing is I have heard several Caucasian’s make the assumption that African Americans wear oppression like a badge of entitlement that allows them to blame the world for failure. Explain the commonly held misconception about your entire race to your child who believe’s you are invincible without the sudden shame overwhelming you.When keeping them out of the loop only puts them at an disadvantage.

    Some would expect African Americans to accept the thought that Barack Obama’s election to office as confirmation that racism is no longer an issue in 21st century America. I simply point out the facts: this country has seen 44 Presidents as off 2008. Of the 44 Presidents there has been 1 that was not Caucasian. The subjugation of blacks into American Slavery that began in the 1400’s (Slavery in America.org.) Current estimates put the total number of slaves in America at 12 – 13 Million(SIA.org).Of course this may be a modest estimate as these people were considered as property and livestock, therefore owners were not required to keep a record of birth or death. This cruel practice was perpetuated until 1865, with the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.
    Nearly 400 years of bondage. One could assume that the time is always now to correct an egregious injustice not nearly 400 years later. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act afforded blacks basic rights that whites had since 1776. Abolishing slavery doesn’t negate the atrocities committed during those some 400 years. Nor did it justify the lynching, raping, bombing, beating, cross burning,torture and degradation blacks experienced at the hands of whites. 21st century America may not be as blatantly racist as it had been but it is still racist nonetheless.The statement could be made that at least when we reflect on Slavery and Jim Crow, white America has no choice but to accept responsibility for their injustices, in 2011 racial profiling, stereotyping and other practices of the like are now denied. Simply a figment of black America’s imagination. Maybe if we are fortunate we may see another African American President after another 219 years.
    To answer your question “what’s so wrong with people painting their face brown?” We “brown” people have been enslaved for nearly 400 years, were blatantly discriminated against even lynched until the 1960’s, got the first President who reflected who we are as a people in 2008. America has given us shame, humiliation, assumption of guilt and ever elusive but never attainable equal playing field. That my naive friend what’s wrong with people painting their face brown.

  2. Della Sandage says:

    its obvious that you have benefited from education and have offered a great evaluation of the taboo issue of painting one’s face brown. My response although valid, is full of typos no doubt fueled by overwhelming passion on the subject matter. The simple fact you attempted to approach the matter from many standpoints is admirable, but at the end of the day you are not black and cannot begin to fathom what it is to be black. You addressed the issue from the black perspective long enough to write this article. For those of us who cannot simply put our skin color in winter storage, it is not the cause of the moment, it is a way of life. You abdicated your throne as the more desirable race in America, but you don’t have firsthand experience as a negro. Don’t assume that a few days of consideration gives you the credibility to come to a valid conclusion. When you do so you undermine not only our suffering but our fight for the very freedoms that whites demand and wage war to maintain.

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