Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Academy Awards 2012: Putting Blackface in Context

February 27, 2012

The New York Times reports that at the 2012 Academy Awards, someone made a racial joke that was “in questionable taste.”

That would be comedian and presenter Chris Rock, who cracked a joke about roles available to black men in animation:

“I love animation because in the world of animation, you can be anything you want to be. If you’re a fat woman you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey, or a zebra. You can’t play white, my God!”

(Compare that to the quip host Billy Crystal made after the lone actor of color for the night, Octavia Spencer, won Best Supporting Actress: “After I saw The Help I just wanted to hug the first black woman I saw, which from Beverly Hills is about a 45 minute drive.” This joke is somehow less “questionable” than Chris Rock’s scripted joke about playing a zebra?)

In other news, UCLA Professor Russell K. Robinson released his new study, “Not Quite a Breakthrough: The Oscars And Actors of Color, 2002-2012”, which found, among other things, that all Best Actress winners since 2002 have been white and no winner in any acting category during the those ten years was Latino, Asian American, or Native American.

The Los Angeles Times published its investigation of the Academy. (Big shocker: Oscar voters are 94% white and 77% male.)

And, although you wouldn’t know it from reading the NYT article, host Billy Crystal’s opening montage had a brief moment of the actor in blackface as Sammy Davis Jr.

Number of women who have solo-hosted the Academy Awards 2
Number of openly gay people who have solo-hosted the Academy Awards 1
Number of people of color who have solo-hosted the Academy Awards 2
Number of times Billy Crystal has solo-hosted the Academy Awards 9
(Sammy Davis Jr. co-hosted the Academy Awards with other actors in 1971 and 1974, but never solo-hosted a show.)  

“Too sensitive?”

Since this (blackface+ Oscars+ 2012) happened, there’s been a lot of grumbling about how it’s “just a joke” and how “it’s not a big deal.”

This is followed by a lot of anxiety and hand-wringing about being “too sensitive” on the part of people who were offended by it (blackface+ Oscars+ 2012)

The implication is that if you are “too sensitive” then your feelings are invalid because they are extreme and those with feelings deemed extreme have no right to complain. ”Too sensitive” compared to whom, exactly? The term frames people who accept depictions of racism in media as normative, while we who are “too sensitive” are the ones not getting with the program (or getting the “joke.” Even if the “joke” is awful.)

The culture that we live in is designed to label folks who “construe something as racist”—regardless of historical context or modern exclusion— as people who are “too sensitive.” It is less concerned with exploring why people are sensitive to racism.

How do these conversations usually go when they take place in the public sphere?

People who are offended by poor depictions of marginalized groups People who are offended when
people offended by poor depictions speak out
Affected by poor depiction Not affected by poor depiction
Labeled as "too sensitive" Not labeled as "too sensitive"
Accused of "victimization
complex" or  "claiming victimhood"
Not accused of "victimization
complex" or "claiming victimhood"
Called "entitled" Not called "entitled"
Told to "Just get over it" Not told to "Just get over it"
Labeled:  "Can’t handle a joke" Not labeled : "Can’t handle people
upset by ‘joke’"
Told:  "No one cares" Not told: "No one cares that you don’t care" or "Maybe you should care"

Told: "Seeing race makes you part of the problem"

Not told: "Dismissing racism makes you a part of the problem."

In our society, to be “too sensitive” is a bigger sin than “doing something that has a racist impact” or “defending something that has a racist impact.”

Why? Because being sensitive is what people who are at an disadvantage do. (Hence sensitivity being a negative trait attributed to women and minorities who just want respect. Note that in our culture, “being a pussy” is taken as an insult to men and “having balls” is taken as a compliment.)

In contrast, cultural bullying is something that people with privilege do. People with agent status are lauded for making “gutsy” jokes and expressing their free speech without caring about responsibility or impact (that would make them “too sensitive.”) The entitlement is such that the “overly sensitive” feelings of the people they are disrespecting shouldn’t matter. Meanwhile, people with targeted status are expected to “take it,” as in, docilely receive and accept it.

Being perceived as “too sensitive” (read: weak) suddenly becomes a concern for anyone (gutsy enough) to speak out.

What about whiteface? Why context matters

Another point of debate that has come out of Crystalface is whether or not blackface is “okay” or “culturally acceptable.” Comparisons are being drawn to the 2004 film White Chicks, the 2008 film Tropic Thunder, or Dave Chapelle’s whiteface routines. This argument usually doesn’t take into account historical context.

Over time, the way blackface has been used in cinema has changed. (Thankfully.) In the early 1900s, it was used to demonize and degrade black Americans [eg. Birth of a Nation (1915)]. Spike Lee’s 2000 film, Bamboozled, starred several black lead actors and satirized minstrel shows and blackface. Fast forward to 2008, where Ben Stiller’s film Tropic Thunder also poked fun at the practice of blackface (Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Academy for this role).

Al Jolson
The Jazz Singer

Robert Downey Jr.
Tropic Thunder

Billy Crystal
Academy Awards
Overtly racist (intended to dehumanize/mark black people as inferior) Yes No No
Portrayal based on harmful stereotypes about black people Yes Yes No

Evokes an oppressive history associated with the practice of blackface

Yes Yes Yes
Provides a meta-commentary that critiques blackface as problematic No Yes No

Acknowledges poor diversity or poor representation of black people in Hollywood
No Yes No

It is possible to critique Billy Crystal’s use of blackface without equating it to the use of blackface in the early 1900s. Billy Crystal’s use of blackface is also different from Tropic Thunder‘s use of blackface.

Because of America’s history of discrimination; and because of Hollywood’s use of media to discriminate against people of color, blackface does have a different impact on the black community than whiteface has on the white community.

  Jake Gyllenhaal as the Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor (2011) Shawn Wayans in





Mighty Whitey



Used as a broad casting practice to keep actors from impacted group out of lead roles

Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Was primary depiction of impacted group for many generations Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No

Used to spread othering stereotype of impacted group

Yes Yes Yes Yes ? ? No No
Impacted group continues to be underrepresented and marginalized in media Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No

  • The “impacted group” is the group being –faced (eg: black face impacted black Americans).
  • In this table, the practice of casting a character of color with a white actor is called “whitewashing” (Prince of Persia) and the practice of casting an actor of color in a role that would likely have gone to a white actor is called “non-traditional casting.” (Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor)
  • Critics of whitewashing say that the practice impacts actors of color by depriving them of roles. Conversely, critics of non-traditional casting argue that this practice deprives white actors of roles.
  • “Mighty Whitey” refers to the practice of inserting white lead characters into stories about people of color and making the role of the white male lead central, such as The Last of the Mohichans, The Last Samurai, and 2012’s The Flowers of War. The impacted group in this case are people of color who are given secondary status in the story.
  • I used question marks for white-washing and Mighty whitey because the impact of these two practices is less clear cut. While the –face practices spread dehumanizing stereotypes, in some cases, white-washing and mighty whitey ‘humanize’ by showing white characters who can be or relate to people of color. Unfortunately, the practice also reinforces that people of color are secondary and positive characters of color are best represented by whites. These stories are not empowering to people of color

This is not an argument for the acceptableness of whiteface, only an argument that blackface and whiteface are incomparable. The reality is that unlike blackface and the other –faces, whiteface has never been used on a sweeping basis, period, and was certainly not ever designed as a practice to prevent an entire population of white people from having the ability to represent themselves on screen. The images perpetrated by blackface, yellowface, brownface, and redface have resulted in stereotypes that have been used to justify discrimination, hate crimes, lynchings, and cultural genocide. The same cannot be said for whiteface.

Given that Hollywood continues to have diversity problem to this day, of course the Billy Crystal blackface scene touched a nerve for many people. It is easier to label the outcry as “too sensitive” than to examine the historical context behind why people might be upset or disturbed. If Chris Rock’s crack about the limited opportunities for actors of color is what’s “questionable,” maybe the New York Times–and Hollywood–needs to take a closer look.

Categories: blog, Featured, History and Concepts
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

    What an excellent breakdown!!!

  • No matter how well reasoned and intellectually sound this article is, there are people who will never get it. To them, Political Correctness is worse than racism. It is Political Correctness that is oppressing them. I find that Political Correctness is typically invoked by the racially insensitive to shame those who would have an open dialog about race into shutting down. It really has become their weapon.

    • Boycott Time

      I would go a step further, personally: what’s so bad about approaching people correctly? There are known ways of communicating that are effective and sometimes even innovative, without offending marginalized groups. I doubt most of these right-wing jags who complain about being oppressed by political correctness would advocate showing up to work with an offensive amount of body odor, making rape jokes about the bible and swearing at the customers. Yet, they expect the rest of us to accept that kind of behavior everywhere else, and in the case of the entertainment industry, even when we are paying customers who should have the final say. It’s hard enough to earn my 10 dollars despite my disability, then I’m expected to give it to creators and studio/theater execs who find it fun and profitable to [themselves, or fund the people who] slander me and portray me as useless, irredeemable, alien, an object of pity and not a member of my society who possesses agency.

      I guess that’s the most shocking thing to me. I understand why a totalitarian state would dehumanize, belittle, exclude, and infantilize people of color, people struggling with disabilities, people forced to request aid, etc. It’s criminal, but I understand it. I understand why a private property owner would want to humiliate people who can’t or won’t pay; it’s not right, but I understand it. I don’t understand how the society I live in, that literally forces me to accept its social contract, allows this behavior to go on, unchecked, generation after generation, against paying customers. If the studio boss had to deal with all the physical and emotional pain I suffer from my developmental disorder, I think he would have a different perspective on character development and what my $10 means to me. But that’s what’s so frustrating about living in this country, the people with the power and money don’t know and don’t care. They just want to sell you the same snake oil again and again.

      I stopped buying a long time ago, and I hope you all join me.

  • Lauren Barrett

    Valid article. Dismissing the outcry over
    Billy Crystal’s pointlessly offensive performance and comments is just a
    form of ignorance. We should recognize the absence of minority roles in
    the media, not gloss it over with speak about how everyone is the same
    underneath. That is beside the point; the media projecting a white
    washed world is a larger issue. Hopefully this incident will provoke
    some dialogue and action in Hollywood to correct these statistics.

  • very informative. thank you! 

  • An argument that I’ve heard (which I’m not defending only observing) is the distinction between a racial stereotype, and a depiction of a specific individual of a particular race. Voice actor Jim Ward frequently portrays the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il using an accent which could be considered racist, but he points out that he is imitating Kim Jong Il, not portraying a random person, and he can no more portray Kim Jong Il without an accent than he could Sean Connery (which he does extremely well).

    In the case of Crystal, he wasn’t portraying ANY black man, he was portraying Sammy Davis Jr. While Sammy Davis Jr has enough quirks and characteristics that one could imitate Davis without blackface, Crystal is as mentioned portraying Davis in particular.

    As far as the question of “political correctness,” the saying I have is “The oppressors will always play victim when the oppressed raise their voices.”

  • I love this blog! What Billy Crystal did was not “blackface” it was an impersonation of an actual person. To be fair, I do not know any black people who were  offended by Billy Crystal or considered it blackface. The only people I have heard or read talking about it are white, mainstream media. 

    • M E

      Billy Crystal was in BF alright, actual person or not. What Billy does does in no way washes away the racist origins of BF, hell, Al Jolson also said he loved Blacks, if we could have asked the white actors in Birth of a Nation whether or not they loved Blacks, they most likely would have said yes too.

      • nelsonsmith

        If you’d asked D.W. Griffith though, I think you would have gotten a completely different answer, and since he was the vision behind BoAN, his opinion would have been the only one that counted.

        • M E

          We will never know. But we do know that it was invented as a propaganda device to demonize and dehumanize Black citizens, just as whites invented yellowface, redface and brownface to smear other POC. Whites in raceface in ALWAYS racist.

  • anonymous

    Love the tables. So true about white-washing and “mighty whitey” – I remember being so upset when I watched the movie Blood Diamond how much the white-person romance took over the plot line.

  • Sid

    I took Crystal’s impersonation of Davis as an homage, not the generic blackface routines of Jolson and Bing Crosby (Holiday Inn). Crystal impersonated numerous actors in that sequence and there was no disrespect, in my opinion, intended. I am white, though, and may not have the capacity to comment.

    • I usually agree with a lot of the content on here but I’m going to have to side with Sid on this one.

      BILLY CRYSTAL LOVED SAMMY DAVIS JUNIOR! He idolized the man and really looked up to him. Crystal is old Hollywood. OF COURSE it was an homage. How could that even be called into question?

      I’m sorry but in this day and age you can’t just assume everyone who puts makeup on is trying to make fun of us brown folk. It’s a case-by-case thing. In this case, Billy was doing a LOVING homage to his hero. He wasn’t making fun of Sammy. He wanted people to say, “Hey, I remember that guy!”

      And @d12884e80bb49833c29bb1202934acf1:disqus , just because you’re white doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice in racial issues. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.

      Racebending, you guys do great work but the Billy Crystal thing? Way off course. How else was he supposed to do the impression, without makeup? That particular situation called for makeup. When Sammy was alive he got a real kick from Crystal’s impression. 

      You guys, do a little research next time. Well, more research. You put a lot of work into these posts, I can tell. Dropped the ball this time though.

      I’m sure your hearts were in the right place though.

      • Guest

        Yeah just because Sammy got a real kick doesn’t mean it doesn’t evoke blackface and the implications of blackface.  

        • It was an impression of someone enhanced with makeup. That’s all it was.

          For an article with the word “context” in its title a lot of people are missing it.

          • M E

            I have heard that Billy loved Sammy too, but that does not give him a pass, also, it opens the floodgates for other whites to do BF as long as they say that loved the Black person. Sorry, ain’t buying it, as I said above, Billy may not have a racist bone in his body, but he is STILL at the end of the day, partaking in a racist act. There is no such thing as noble BF.

    • M E

      Were it not for the RACIST origins of whites in BF, then it would be perfectly fine for whites to do BF. Whites in BF can NEVER be “homage” and always a racist manifestation of hate for Black people. Billy Crystal may not have a racist bone in his body, but he still is partaking in a racist act.

  • Bearforce

    How do you address a person that does construe something to be racist?  Is it ever possible for something to not be racist, but someone else think it is?  I’m not being facetious, I’m serious.  I think honest dialogue is extremely important. Whenever I hear anyone say “I don’t actually think that’s racist,” they immediately get called a racist, or an apologist, or accused of making excuses for racism.  Even asking this question, I’m sure people will read it and think”oh, so you’re defending racists, eh?!”  Well, I’m not. I just think that there should be room to talk about whether something is actually racist or not.

    • Missy

       It’s also safe to say that when people of color say things are racist, it is fair to believe them.

      • M E

        True, when ever a Black person says that something is racist….USUALLY it is.

        • nelsonsmith

          What about the case where black people disagree on something being racist? Not all people believe that Downey’s portrayal in TT was racist, while I’ve heard some say that it was. Of course some people said that without even having seen the film or understanding the context that the character was presented in, but it begs the question; does their uninformed opinion count toward anything just because they are black?

          • M E

            True, Blacks can and do disagree on things that are racist, some of my personal Black friends disagree with me on whites in BF.
            But ya gotta admit, that SOME Blacks DISAGREED with Harriet Tubman’s truths as well, in fact she said; “I freed thousands of slaves, and I could have freed thousands more if I could have convinced them that they were slaves’. There were SOME Blacks that DISAGREED with MLK.

            Don’t be taken in by the “It was only satire people”, that is akin to the ‘peeing on my head and telling me that it’s raining’ saying. At the end of the day we STILL had a white man in BF and it has racist origins, also, the makeup kit that came out after the movie helped to open the floodgates for more whites in BF. There is no such thing as noble BF, if whites really want to decry BF, then don’t do it at all, instead of finding ways to do BF in a passive-aggressive way as with TT.

    • Beks

       The best way to address this is to ask the question, “Why did this come off as racist?  Is there a way to do/say the same thing without it seeming racist, given that the intent was not to be racist?”  Then you learn something, and can engage in a dialogue rather than sound like you’re defending something that shouldn’t be defended or are ok with ignorance.  The other person gets to learn something about you, too (hopefully, that you aren’t racist). 

    • M E

      That thinking is fine, but remember whether or not YOU are on the RECEIVING END or not. Think INTENT vs IMPACT.

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  • Ises3

    Yes it is. The fact remains, he is white and the story centers around him. The decision to let him narrate the film is very telling. He is a white male in a Native American setting and is the designated hero while all the other warriors, who are actually natives (disregard the casting), play a secondary role. He is made to be an even greater hero when he decides to leave the tribe in order to keep them safe. The sacrifice this character makes is the perfect example of the mighty whitey who is, as the writer of this article suggest, humanized by relating to people of color.

    • Andrew Mara

      It also plays into the myth of the Vanishing Native American. White guy to the rescue for the poor-destined-for-extinction Native Americans.

      Except none of it is true, and it lets us all off the hook for thinking about real historical references. Turn the tables, and have a Japanese soldier befriend a plucky American platoon during the Battle of Midway, only to have that Japanese soldier perform Americanness better than the hilariously simple-yet-noble American soldiers who we all know lose the war and are doomed to extinction.

      -cut to tear rolling down the cheek of Dances-With-Stars-and-Stripes.

      *credits roll*

  • Ash

    Really great article thank you so much for posting.

    Sadly some people do not get it and probably never will

  • Venom

    SNL STILL uses blackface. Fred Armisan as President Obama for example.

    • This is so stupid I don’t even know how to reply to this.

      So I won’t!

    • M E

      Fred Armisan is NOT white, non whites that do BF get a pass, Blacks that do yellowface get a pass, Asians that do BF get a pass…. That’s right. Why? Because it was (((whites))) that INVENTED colorface or raceface for the express purpose of inflicting pain and perpetuating hate onto non whites.

      • Venom

        It’s still blackface. Have you ever seen Bamboozled?

        • M E

          Yes, but it is not inherently racist since Fred is NOT white, as I said, it was whites that invented raceface to inflict pain onto Blacks, in Japan there is/was a Hip Hop shop in downtown Tokyo where the Japanese clerks were in FULL BF, but here is the kicker, they do it to pay ‘sincere homage’ to Blacks and Hip Hop culture. So why can’t whites do this w/o being called racist? Because they have already established THEIR BF as racist. Notice that when Carlos Mencia did BF on his cable show, or Eddie Murphy did yellowface in Norbit that there were no cries of racism, Blacks, in YF or Asians in BF has no racist origins.

          • Venom

            It is still tied to that history regardless of who wears it, that was the point being made. And if you ask me the Norbit yellowface IS just as racist as Mickey Rooney’s. Same goes for Rob Schneider in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.

          • M E

            Venom,Venom,Venom, Yellowface by Eddie Murphy has no historical, racist connotations, (((Whites))) INVENTED YF, BF, RF and Brnface to smear people of color. To the best of my knowledge, there was no Asian outcry about Norbit, could it be that the Asians KNOW the difference between Mickey Rooney’s hateful mocking of them and EM’s comical jest?

          • Venom

            No, Norbit and Chuck & Larry are the EXACT SAME type of hateful mocking. And BTW yes, numerous critics and commentators did voice offense at them. Also Murphy won a Razzie for that portrayal and Schneider was nominated.

  • Matthew Raymond

    I’d like to point out that I was offended by the premise of White Chicks because I viewed it as men belittling women. The whole “whiteface” thing didn’t occur to me until much later. There are plenty of instances in movies where men pretend to be women (Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Big Momma’s House, almost any movie by Tyler Perry, et cetera), and there was a very long history of women being played by men (although women have at this point been playing women characters for a very long time), so I’m wondering if we shouldn’t be having a separate conversation about “femmeface” (for lack of a MUCH better term)…

    • M E

      Femmeface? That is another discussion, lets stay on topic.

  • Matthew Raymond

       Is it racist to cast an actor who is outside of the character’s ethnicity if the movie is entirely animated or computer generated? After all, it’s not uncommon for animated movies and TV series (especially dubbed ones) to feature non-asian actors voicing asian characters.

    • M E

      If the cartoon is meant to be Asian, try like hell to hire and PAY an actual Asian etc.

  • pedantic

    I’m sorry but I think you ruined a well reasoned argument and made your article ridiculous with your appalling use of tables.
    Sorry for the rant but I hate intellectual dishonesty in the misrepresentation of opinions as facts.
    Tables are used to represent data in a way that is better understood by the reader. They are a way of using facts to support an argument. But that is the kicker, they use data and facts, not opinions.
    All you have done in all your tables was to show your opinions, which are not supported by any data, in a tabular format so that your argument seemed more researched, reasoned and clever. Your article and argument didn’t need them to be compelling, but you have put them in to try to appear cleverer and to have put in more reasearch to an opinion piece than you actually did.
    I mean, look at your row headings on the left. They are completely subjective statements that you then append ‘yes’ and ‘no’ too based entirely on what you think.That is not data.
    I have no issue at all with your article being entirely opinion based, this is the internet after all, and I agree with most of what you say.
    But trying to dress this up as a scientific or fact based argument by using these tables is dishonest and reeks of either pretentiousness or intellectual laziness.
    In future, if your argument needs something ‘sciency’ to be compelling, how about you do some actual research to put in tables? If you don’t want to spend time on that, please stop dressing your opinions, however strongly held or agreeable, up as facts.

    • happyappa

      Sorry, but what you said is not rational. You did not indent your paragraphs.

    • Jason

      Right because tables and graphs are 100% only ever supposed to be used for completely factual scientific journals and absolutely nothing else, ever.

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  • M E

    I also hate the term: “Too sensitive”. I usually come back by saying: “Wolves feel that sheep are too sensitive”. That usually makes the other guy ST#U.

  • nelsonsmith

    So during Shakespearian times when the play Othello was performed and was probably performed by an actor in Blackface, would that be considered racist if someone did a film about Shakespeare, or set in that time period and showed it? I only bring this up in the context of historical and period pieces in which you don’t want to “whitewash” history, yet you’ve got people who consider any portrayals of blackface as racist even though for historical accuracy you can’t or shouldn’t avoid it.

    • M E

      Dear, dear nelsonsmith, Whites in BF has racist origins, therefore when whites do BF even TODAY, it is at best SUSPECT, if a Black person is needed for a role, then hire a Black person….PERIOD. I also want to add that lately when the white person is made up to look like a Black person, these days he will be made to look more or less normal, but that does not give it a pass, it is still BF, there is no such thing as prettier BF.