Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Leave It To Whoopi Goldberg To Defend Blackface

'Whoopi' photo (c) 2006, Archman8 - license:
Guest Post from Renee of Womanist Musings, who is all that and four bags of ketchup flavored chips.

Watching The View this morning, I was given yet one more reason to wish that Goldberg came with a mute button.  You know it's a bad day, when you find yourself saying thank heaven for Sherri Sheppard.

It all began when Whoopi Goldberg brought up the incident in which 6 Southern Miss Sorority girls were suspended for wearing Blackface to dress as the Huxtable family, from the 80's sitcom The Cosby show for Halloween.
"Though it is clear that these women had no ill intent, it was also clear that they had little cultural awareness or competency, and did not understand the historical implication of costuming in blackface," Dean of Students Eddie Holloway said in a news release.

What "probation" means exactly is unclear. Phi Mu Fraternity National President Kris Bridges said Phi Mu does not make public specific disciplinary actions taken against individuals.

Bridges said in a news release that she is "deeply disappointed" in the actions of the girls but added she does not believe they had any "malicious intent."

"That is why some of the sanctions the members will face will include opportunities for education on this topic," she said.

Chapter sanctions include diversity and cultural competency educational requirements, including the sponsorship of a campuswide program with a nationally known speaker on diversity appreciation. (source)
I think to most people, dressing up in Blackface is understood as an instant no no, but there are others who always seem to find a reason to defend it and they are not always White, as the following transcript from this mornings segment of the view will show.

Whoopi: I think it's bull. They weren't out there with big red lips and walking around like they used to do in the old days. That's now what they were doing. They were doing a show, that was actually on tv, that had an entire Black family.  Now, when I did the queen of England at the Oscar[s], isn't that the same thing?
Behar: What do you mean, like Blackface?
Whoopi: I was in Whiteface. But the idea that these girls dressed as The Huxtables, feels very different than someone doing, say
Behar: something with the big lips
Walters: Also minstrel shows were banned because they were all so hokey and it was all portraying
Whoopi: Right but that's not what these girls were doing
Walters: But if you're doing Othello and your doing it on stage, and your a White actor, nobody thinks a thing, of if it's halloween and you want to look like - I don't know
Whoopi:  Me
Walters: You know, I think this is when the politically correct goes, this is incorrect.
Okay, so if your intent is not to demean, that supposedly removes all of the history and racism that is encoded with Blackface? Ummm, in a word, NO.  It is not right for a White person to play Othello and it is only recently that Black actors have been given a chance to play this role.  This of course because of discrimination, and so the idea that we willingly accept a White actor in this role ignores the man ways Blacks have been silenced every time we have complained about this.
Sheppard: I got a different about it, I think that - not upset at this girls that they didn't know the cultural references.
Whoopi: which cultural references?
Sheppard: of Blackface, when it was originally done what it meant.
Behar: Do you know what it meant?
Sheppard: When they would do the Blackface and you can correct me if I'm wrong Whoopi, you studied this.  As I understand it, when Blackface was done, it was because Black performers could not perform as themselves and they had to wear cork makeup on their face, so it was saying to them, you're not good enough as you are to perform, because White audiences would not accept Black people performing in the venue
Whoopi: Right
Sheppard: Unless they were in Blackface and Blackface has been taken throughout those years. It takes the most horrible stereotypes of Black people and the cruelest stereotypes and it puts it out there.
Whoopi: Let's be clear that's not what these girls were doing.
Sheppard: that's what I'm saying. If you know the history that Blackface is coming from
Behar: The dean of students - let me read this to you, his name is Eddie Holloway from the university of southern Mississippi. "It was clear that these women had no ill intent, it was also clear that they had no cultural awareness of competency and did not understand the historical implications of costuming." This is at a university. Maybe they should teach them.
This was a great explanation as to why Blackface is wrong.  I absolutely reject the idea that it is a matter of cultural ignorance though. Whiteness has the choice to educate itself about Blacks or live in ignorance, and ultimately many are so wrapped up in their privielge that they don't bother to learn, however the ongoing debate about Blackface is far from obscure.  Blacks are constantly speaking out about how offensive Blackface is and every Halloween their is a round of discussion when invariably some White people thinks that Blackface constitute a costume.
Whoopi: Don't you see that the fact that they dug the Huxtables enough to want to dress like them, says that they have cultural awareness. I'm sorry, but the Huxtables were Black, they were the first whole Black family we ever saw on tv, who actually had jobs on both sides.
Sheppard: If you take the Huxtables, you know Dr. Huxtable, he had this family - they were an affluent, educated Black family.
Walters: Do you think these girls should not have done it? Is that your point?
Sheppard: I think that they were not aware that this is something that causes a lot of emotion in people. You're reducing to me, the Huxtables to this kind of buffonish character
Whoopi: Now hold up, there's a difference between what the Huxtables looks like, and what actual buffonery looks like. Now there's a huge actual difference. Basically what you are saying Sheri, is that no one can put on makeup to darken their skin. Now I know you were darker when you were younger. [addressing Behar]
There is absolutely no reason for a White person to dress up like a Black person. Even if their intent is not mockery or outright racism, you cannot divorce the historical meaning of this action.  It is not a true limitations to White people to avoid Blackface.  The world already caters to them and so the fact that they have to avoid Black characters does not constitute any form of oppression.
Behar: When I went to a party one time, I really went as an African woman. I was wearing what I thought was kind of a deshike kind of thing, the hair came curly and I wore tinted make up on my skin, so I looked a little darker. Now, I thought that was kind of an homage basically to a beautiful - a looked good - to a pretty African woman. I wasn't making fun of anything, I was basically saying look at how good this can look on me, I like that.
Sheppard: And you made a point [addressing Whoopi]  you know how you dressed as the queen of England, you know White face  and I would say to that, White face was never historically meant to oppress White people.
Whoopi: Listen, Black people were infuriated with me that I would do that.
Sheppard: Why?
Whoopi: I don't know. Here's the thing, that means that none of us can ever be anyone historical, we can never be any characters that we see, who are not absolutely Black. I think that it's too limiting.
Walters: and you cannot have a White actor playing Othello.
Whoopi: Yeah, we're going to keep talking about this.
This is the point at which I wish that Goldberg would stop talking about it. Considering that she had a role to play in Ted Danson's Blackface incident, I am hardly surprised that this is the position that she chose to take. Whoopi is the White man's best friend, when it comes to excusing or otherwise justifying racism.  Her position is clearly an example of internalized racism, and I fear that it will be used to justify Blackface in the future.

Her actions are dangerous because they serve to support White supremacy.  What sell-outs like Whoopi fail to acknowledge, is that Whiteness rules with the aid of Blacks exactly like her. Whiteness is highly invested in ensuring that its privilege remains beyond question socially. It further emboldens the ignorance and arrogance that goes into not acknowledging or learning about the historical wrongs committed by Whiteness against Blacks. Essentially, Whoopi's comments make it seem as though Blacks are just ruining simple fun and complaining about nothing.  It's similar to those who charge that historically marginalized people are on a constant mission to look for something to be offended about.

I truly wish that I could ignore every single word that Whoopi says, because she has shown such an extreme amount of ignorance over the years about various subjects.  I cannot afford to sweep her under the rug and forget about her specifically because she is a public figure.  Blacks are not seen as individuals socially, and so even though Sheppard did publicly agree with Goldberg, what will be remembered is what Whoopi had to say, because it was in the service of White supremacy.  Just as many White people turn to people like Obama and Oprah Winfrey to point out how good Blacks have it today, they will turn to Whoopi to defend Blackface.

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