Wednesday, June 17, 2009

think that blackface is okay if white people are the butt of the joke

Chicago-Lake Liquors
Minneapolis, Minnesota
(click here for larger version)

On the absorbing and informative blog Kiss My Black Ads, Craig Brimm responds to an ad campaign currently being run by Chicago-Lake Liquors, a store located in a largely black area of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The images above are apparently billboards, and I've embedded below the three TV commercials also included in this campaign. (If you can't view them, they're also running now on the store's site here.)

The ads include "black" language, gestures, body language and so on, as performed by white, middle-class men (why no white women?). As I understand it, the joke is that these white folks are making fools of themselves by imitating black people.

Are these ads racist? Or are they making fun of racist white people? And if they're "only" doing the latter, does that really make the contemporary blackface here any more acceptable?

Does context matter here, with Chicago-Lake Liquors located in a largely black area? Given that, perhaps the ads allow black people to feel superior in a way to these white people, by laughing at their silly efforts to get hip by acting "black." Maybe, but that seems like a stretch.

Speaking of context -- while blackface is largely condemned in the U.S., because it perpetuates and solidifies racist stereotypes, it serves other purposes in some other countries. Take a look at these other examples; as a United States citizen trying to become more aware on a daily level of racism and my own whiteness, I have increasing trouble ever seeing blackface, literal or otherwise, as acceptable. And yet, I'm a strong believer in the meaning-generating significance of social, historical, and cultural context. Many things have different meanings in different contexts.

Last summer, I posted a video in which British TV star Tracey Ullman donned blackface, in order to satirize (effectively, I thought) self-aggrandizing white people who adopt African children. Now, though, I'm not so sure this skit is worth applauding, despite the good point that I think it makes.

Is that acceptable blackface?

Then there's this recent blackface performance by a Turkish newscaster. Apparently, according to ScoopThis.Org, this is a complicated joke of sorts, mostly meant to pay homage and gentle respect to Obama, and also to criticize Turkey itself for recent dealings with the U.S. BuzzFeed adds this: "Apparently, it's actually a metaphor for the way the Bush administration 'darkened' the face of the Turkish public, and how the anchor hopes Obama will turn things around."

Within a Turkish context, is this acceptable blackface?

Whether your answer is "yes" or "no," it does seem worthwhile to interpret this performance in light of the strong probability that Turkish society in general has little sense or understanding of the particular, deeply racist history of blackface in the United States.

I'm also reminded of the Japanese teenagers who used to dress up, and maybe still do, in a fashion known as Ganguro (ガングロ), which literally means "black-face."

According to a Western video report on this phenomenon, this look does not come from people of African descent; instead, its origins are traceable to a Japanese comic's donning of blackface in order to clown around in a loincloth in the guise of an aboriginal Australian.*

So, I do find the Chicago-Lake Liquors ads racist. Even though the satiric butt of their central joke is clueless white people instead of black people, their version of blackness is insultingly cartoonish. They also basically revive what amounts to an American white supremacist tradition that deserves to die, blackface minstrelsy.

Still, I wonder -- if we consider geographic, sociohistorical context, are some versions of blackface okay? Perhaps even, given its urban location, the contemporary American version in Chicago-Lake Liquors' ad campaign?

* As Restructure! notes in a comment, Ganguro is one of three such modes of teenage blackface identified in the video; Yamanba, which means "mountain hag," is the name of the one that's tied to a comic's racist parody of an aboriginal Australian. Jonathan Ross, the narrator of the video, notes that when Ganguro appeared after Yamanba, "many thought it was simply an homage" to the comic's "beloved creation," but apparently it's not.


  1. I like that you're able to tear into the use of blackface, and its equivalent, in the U.S. context, while still asking culturally appropriate questions abroad.

    The Turkish newscaster, for instance, *was* engaged in a Turkish cultural practice which has nothing to do with mocking those of African descent. While ignorance of the history of blackface is a poor excuse in the U.S., it's much harder to argue that people in Turkey should be aware of it -- and should abandon their own cultural practices as a result.

    You're also careful to note that the Japanese trend of Ganguro is also not derived from the U.S. tradition of blackface. I don't know whether or not those kids, who can still be seen in certain areas of Tokyo, are basing what they do on a practice that was originally offensive. It's quite possible that it was, but that can and should be looked at on its own terms.

  2. I think "aghast" is the word I'm looking for to describe my feelings about these ads. But "OMFG" works, too. This is worse than Steve Martin's gangsta act in Bringing Down the House.

    And re the Japanese girl in the picture: could somebody please track this girl down and give her the spanking she clearly needs? (Or a time-out if you prefer, but don't let it be over until she's ready to join the human race).

    Yes, context means something. But these days, the Internet means that when you act like an ass in public, the whole world can watch you do it.

  3. I'm also reminded of the Japanese teenagers who used to dress up, and maybe still do, in a fashion known as Ganguro (ガングロ), which literally means "black-face."

    According to a Western video report on this phenomenon, this look does not come from people of African descent; instead, its origins are traceable to a Japanese comic's donning of blackface in order to clown around in a loincloth in the guise of an aboriginal Australian.

    Uh, no. The video you linked to, if you half paid attention, makes a distinction between Kogal, Ganguro, and Yamanba. Yamanba is traced to the Japanese comic mocking aboriginal Australians. Kogal and Ganguro are traced to Baywatch.

    Also, the origin of Yamanba is racist. Are you suggesting that if aboriginal Australians are being mocked instead of African Americans, it isn't racist? You recognize that Mickey Rooney's yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany's is racist--even if it does not originate from American blackface--so what point are you trying to make?

  4. Thank you for the correction, Restructure.

    Also, the origin of Yamanba is racist. Are you suggesting that if aboriginal Australians are being mocked instead of African Americans, it isn't racist?

    Of course not.

    You recognize that Mickey Rooney's yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany's is racist--even if it does not originate from American blackface--so what point are you trying to make?

    The point I was trying to make is to provide another example of how different contexts confer different meanings (in this case, non-African) on "blackface" from those in the U.S.

  5. I think that when BlackFace is used in an intelligent, and thought-provoking manner such as Tracy Ullman's performance then it's fine. As an American Black Woman, I was not offended at all. She was in no way buffoonish or ignorant, and definitely not insulting to my nature nor my intelligence.

    On the other hand, those liquor ads, do I dare say... are a hot ass mess. As you stated, the history between Americans of African Descent and Whites fairs differently with other cultures, such as The Turkish. They don't have the same brutal relationship with Us as the people who are a part of the Chicago Lake liquor ads. While I can look at this and laugh at the "point" they're trying to make... it's not funny at all that this is your interpretation of how you think I act.

  6. When I was in Iceland this past January my host had a picture of himself with a friend when they were kids:

    I kind of freaked out and was like, "uhh, what's that?" And he told me that on Iceland's independence day, children wear face paint. I asked if he knew what blackface was and he wasn't familiar with it. It didn't mean anything to him to wear black face paint. It was just another color. I found it interesting how something that can be so offensive to us can mean nothing in particular to another group of people. It just kind of proves your point that context plays a big part.
    That being said, those liquor ads are definitely racist.

  7. I think blackface or any dressing up like "those other people" should be frowned upon.

    It's amazing that, with all the struggles actors/actresses go through trying to get parts, that they aren't hired more often to make the parodies themselves. Maybe that's part of the problem to begin with. A "let's run with this but not consult too many of 'those people' we are discussing because we might be criticized".

    I also think it is representative of a much larger problem which is willful denial of overprivilege.

    I feel confident in saying that, at least in America, many white people would be less offened by seeing 100 of those ads/skits poking fun at white people then they would be by seeing a news program with ONE confident and direct person of color discussing white privilege, employment discrimination, affirmative action, or any other SERIOUS issue concerning race relations.

  8. really stimulating post.

    I find it hard to see Tracy Ullman's performance as blackface. I think she sets the scene in a completely different context such that blackface is literally about the makeup on her face and the accent she portrays.

    I see blackface as more than that. It's a mocking and parasitic.

  9. Thanks for a thought-provoking conversation. I got stuck on the first series of ads and wondered how you determined that the white people were mocking black people. I'm not saying they aren't, but I think it also is worth mentioning that there is just as big a juxtaposition of class as race. You wouldn't expect a black man in a business suit to use the language that the white man in a business suit is supposedly using. And I guess it gets me thinking about the white people (probably not in suits and soccer-mom workout gear) who actually would use that language. They exist.

  10. Regarding the Laker's ads, I think that is a white woman featured on the next to last billboard you reposted. . . Does it matter whether the campaign writers for the ads were white or black or Korean, for that matter?

  11. @Restructure: Thanks for clarifying the origins of ganguro - I'm interested in gyaru and when I read the original post I was like, "Wait, no, what? That's not it!" LOL. (As an interesting side note, we're now seeing a phenomenon where white kids are attempting to dress up in gyaru styles, especially at anime conventions and that sort of thing - so we're seeing white American people trying to emulate Japanese people who were trying to emulating white American people.)

    @Dejamorgana: you think that girl's bad? Try doing a Google image search for "yamanba" or "manba" (although yamanbas tend to be even more outrageous, both searches will bring up plenty of o_O moments for you).

    Regarding the OP: I'm not sure if I can even dissect what they're trying to do in these photos. I think it's undeniable that they're racist, so let's just get that out of the way. But aside from the ick factor of the racism, I'm also having difficulty figuring out what their intention was, because it can be read in a number of different ways. Are they making fun of white people for wanting to be like black people? Are they highlighting the class distinction, as Masemase suggested? Are they trying to mock stereotypes of black culture? Are the ad execs using those stereotypes in a misguided attempt to connect with an audience that they believe will respond positively to those stereotypes, because they think their audience *is* like those stereotypes? These ads are such a muddle of WTF that, as one of my grandfathers would have put it, "I keep flipping this pig over and over, and I still can't figure out which end is the head and which end is the ass."

  12. @Robin (although yamanbas tend to be even more outrageous, both searches will bring up plenty of o_O moments for you)


    actually more like nervous WTF laughter... O_o

  13. All I can say is...I love this blog.

  14. Years ago Geo Carlin, on his "Occupation: Foole" LP, pointed out that, if you put 10 black teenagers with 10 white teenagers, in time the whites will start to act "black" because "black" is perceived as more cool. I'm sure that he meant that as a compliment in the urban setting. I thought of that when I saw these ads - white guys acting "black" in order to, I guess, be cool.

    But you've got to ask - what is "black"? And is this really "black" or just a cliche? I needed to hear Notorious ZAG's comment that it's not funny if you think this is how she, a black woman, acts. I frankly would be offended if someone thought that acting 'white' always meant imitating Rush Limbaugh, for example.

    Great blog.

  15. My interpretation may be totally out there, but when I saw the ad I assumed that it was possibly made by black people and that regardless of who made it the intended goal was to make a primarily black audience laugh at silly country-club white folks. I saw it as trying to attract customers by making light of the way a privileged group uses cultural appropriation to seem cool, especially when partying. The white people in the Ad are like older versions of Asher Roth (maybe?) or the stodgy old teacher who sponsors the hip hop club at the high school and then tries to relate to his students by adopting their slang. My assumption would be that the goal of the ad was to get peoples attention with lulzing, and to convey a subliminal message to the customer about the quality of their selection and its relative low cost.

    I forwarded the ad to a couple of friends, both of whom were amused, and agreed that if in the area it was the sort of thing that would make them want to stop by that shop (both of the people I picked were from the great lakes, though niether from mpls).

  16. As someone who lives in the Twin Cities, my guess at the intent of the Chicago-Lake liquor ads is to make it "okay" for a certain class of white people to patronize their store. As mentioned in the OP, the store is in a mostly African-American community -- and, I might add, an area that has been a focus of intense urban planning interest with the introduction of the light rail system (which has a major stop in the area) and the renovation of a midtown building to be an ethnic wonderland bazaar. The train stop has caused an influx of condos to jump up, trying to make the area a hip urban (gentrified) center. And while I don't mean to insult the midtown building (the bazaar is actually pretty cool) a lot of the advertising done outside of that neighborhood (i.e. in white neighborhoods) heavily emphasizes how wacky and awesome it is that you can go there and, like, eat falafel, and listen to Middle Eastern music, and maybe even look at African art, my god, how exotic!

    So you've got this area that's revitalizing in some cool ways, but is also attempting to bring in the money and clientele that is perceived as desirable -- middle-class white people. Not that there aren't white people in that area already, but the white people who do live there are overwhelmingly young student/hipster types. But Chicago-Lake's advertising is focused on a different kind of white clientele that they obviously want (and currently don't have) in their store (i.e. the white people depicted in the ads, middle-class and white collar). Those are white people who might need some encouragement to go into a neighborhood that hasn't always had the greatest reputation in years past, and a place where they know they will not be in the majority.

    So they hit them with a one-two punch: 1) come to our store because it's cheap with a wide selection (this is true and fine advertising), and 2) it's okay for you to come into this black neighborhood, and patronize this store that may possibly be full of black people, because we will give you some honorary blackness. I think the main message of these ads are: hey Office Work white dude, loosen your tie and come slum it with the natives! There'll be vernacular and hipness and music with bass! It'll be so wacky and funny, you'll be so cool and ironic, and then there'll even be booze!

    As for the Tracy Ullman bit, I don't think there was anything offensive about the content, though she opens herself up to this extra degree of scrutiny by making the choice to do it in blackface. What bothers me is: was blackface a necessary choice here? Was it meant to add to the bit in a way that went over my head, it was so subtle? Or was it just because she couldn't/didn't try to find a black actress to play the part?

  17. quote Tyrin Turner from "Belly":
    .......I dont like THAT shit.

    Regardless of the intent, it waz sloppily executed & futhers the misconception that Black ppl are 1-dimensional... uneducated... sub-human caricatures.

  18. Honestly, the question of Turkish people in blackface is none of your business to approve or disapprove of. It's an intra-poc conversation. This is stuffwhitepeopledo, not stuffturkishpeopledo.

  19. So, I used to live in that "mostly African-American" community, and I walk/bus through there on a regular basis. It's thought of as a Black neighborhood, but it's totally mixed - maybe half African American? Probably less than half, depending where you draw the lines, since it's right on the division line between two neighborhoods.

    I think it depends a lot on where the billboards are - Jules' interpretation makes sense if they were right by the store (unless they were on Lake street facing the Midtown Exchange). But if they're somewhere else, they're reaching for a different audience. I don't think the white people in those ads are the butt of the joke.

  20. Not that this changes the overall theme of this discussion, but when I first saw the ads on there own (on youtube with no comments)I had a slightly different take. Maybe its because of my ethnic background, but I thought "Gary", the big handsome guy in the last ad, was trying to fashion himself as a young Latino male. At the end of the ad there appears to be a Latino man standing behind him at check out, showing that the Latin community shops there as well. Again, not that that makes a difference in overall context, but it seems to reinforce the idea that people see what they want to see.

    Another point. Not one commentator on this site or any other I have read (I must admit to becoming a bit obsessed with these ads) has brought up the sista in the office ad. She seems to be on equal if not greater footings (supervisor?) as the white guys. They are embarrassed by their actions and are put in their place by her look alone.

    Maybe I'm reading too much into a trio of liquor store ads. Actually, I know I am. It's the Fourth of July, I should be outside. I was just surprised that most comments I have read have been so similar.


  21. I wonder at the extent to which comedy should be judged and restricted. What is the basis of humor? And you may critize, but is that criticism always constructive or mindful?

    I agree with your post, yes, but I wonder, too.

  22. You need to ask the Wayans brothers about that. They have a White girl in blackface in the movie Dance Flick. Now what White man are we going to blame that on?

  23. Thought'd I'd mention that in the Minneapolis ads, all of the white people are listed as "Name, Hometown" and all of their hometowns are wealthier, white suburbs.

  24. Black face was invented as a 'weapon' by racists whites to DEMONIZE black Americans, even when whites do it today, it conjures up the memories of the original intent, just ask the Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who used it to be Lil wayne.

    But American history is NOT everyones history, when the Japanese girls used BF, it is meant to pay HOMAGE to Hip Hop culture and black Americas. whites do it out of hate, just as they do with red face and yellow face.

  25. I am white and really embarrassed about something I did in the past. My friends and I all dressed up as famous performers, and one of my friends went as Tina Turner. We darkened her skin a bit for the costume. I had never heard of blackface before, had no idea that there was a history of white people doing blackface to taunt and dehumanize blacks. We just loved Tina Turner and wanted the costume to be right. I am ashamed now that I know and would never do it again, but wish I could take it back. I realize now that if a black person were to whiten their skin for a costume, I would find it strange and offensive. I know my white privilege is the reason I did not stop to evaluate my behavior. I am glad that I could break away from my ignorance.


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