The concept of entertainment and race has been in the news lately. Namely, these issues have cropped up most notably in regards to three San Diego, California high school staffers being suspended for donning blackface during a Halloween Costume depicting characters from the movie Cool Runnings (Turtletaub, dir.,1993) (Shaw, 2013, November 2, 2013, http://www.abcnews.go.com/headlines/11/02/san-diego-high-school-staffers-after-blackface-costume-incident) and by the actress Julianne Hough who donned blackface to depict a Black character from Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black (Swanson, 2013, October 31, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/31/blackface-poll_n_4182928.html).
Swanson (2013, October 31) reports four out of ten Americans in an Internet poll. Internet polls, of course, are always susceptible to criticism because these polls lack statistical viability in the same manner as do more common research polls since these polls evoke a purely voluntary and non-randomized result (Moore 2000; Rumsey, 2011). In other words, the data collected within these polls can overstate or understate the reality of what the actual data might be. For example, perhaps individuals who are for blackface might be more likely to respond to an Internet poll because they feel strongly about the issue.
Statistics lesson aside, however, what are we to make of these incidents if, indeed, this poll is either an accurate measure to the extent that it indicates that there is still substantial (even if we assume that the numbers were driven up by the polling practice) cultural belief that blackface is okay. Blackface, as Shaw and Swanson explain in their respective articles, remains offensive to many individuals of African descent. This stems from its historical device as a way to mock African-Americans.
What of the argument, though, that these costumes were intended “just for fun” and were not actually meant to negatively represent individuals of African diaspora history? In other words, if these things are not done in a mean spirited way, should we lighten up?
I want to argue that this is a question that is answered both in terms of its artistic intent and by interrogating privilege. I will begin with privilege. Peggy McIntosh (1988) lists a number of privileges enjoyed by White people, but not necessarily given to non-whites. One of these privileges, number 16, indicates that an individual can remain “oblivious” to the “languages and customs” of the group without any penalty to their individual’s own culture. Subsequent other scholars have listed similar type privileges (e.g. male privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc.). The ability to be oblivious, and, thus, find entertainment and humor without having to be aware of issues surrounding this issue, even if not done with purposeful malicious intent, thus, might be listed as a privilege. Any depiction of a group that is not necessarily malicious, but is in violation of the group’s culture could be considered a privilege. To say that people should “lighten up” if they take offense to their culture being attacked is, McIntosh might suggest, a privilege given to the dominant class.
When we talk about entertainment, we have to ask “Who is being entertained? Who is laughing?” This brings us to a discussion of the artistic merit of such choices. Obviously, those who believe that this is done in fun may find some entertainment value in it. However, is there really any artistic merit to it? These costumes do not represent anything other than a “spirit of fun” according to those donning the blackface.
One might ask, however, that given the choices out there, why would an individual choose such a costume? When individuals talk and choose the words “That’s so gay” or “That’s retarded”, they do not always mean to offend, but their words carry a great deal of connotation. In other words, I would suggest that if the costumes supposedly do not “mean anything” except for mere entertainment purposes, they are ill chosen words or artistic choices. There is no actual redeeming artistic value here, no higher purpose. It’s just emptiness. Sure, the privileged may feel it is “all in fun,” but again, we have to ask “Who is laughing?” to find if there is actual entertainment value or whether it is just playing to the stereotypes and, thus, playing to privilege.
Does stereotyping ever have redeeming artistic value? At its most extreme (i.e. blackface) it probably does not. However, sometimes playing on stereotypes can be an effective rhetorical tool. For example, author Mark Twain’s characters sometimes played to stereotypes in an effective way. In modern times, comedian Stephen Colbert is an example of effectively utilizes stereotypes. However, in regards to these humorists, there is an actual educational / rhetorical point they are making. Usually, the audience is “in on the joke” and it is done in such a way as to confront the other side by utilizing its own devices. In other words, there is actual art going on here, not just an empty reaction. This is a major distinction.
When we think about our choices, we have to consider the wider community ethos. Entertainment for the privileged does not always validate something as an artistic choice. Sure, one might earn an empty laugh from the privileged, but it is just appeal to the low-brow instincts of the world, not an appeal to what is the best in us. When we live in a world where empty words or empty representations cause hurt for human beings, we cannot lighten up. We deserve better art and better choices for ourselves and others.