Nick Cannon, host of "America's Got Talent," created a white person persona, Connor Smallnut, in order to promote his newly released CD, "White People Party Mix (WPPM)." Black music mogul and actor-comedian Nick Cannon, race-cross dressed by putting flesh colored make-up on his naturally brown skin. Further, Cannon donned street clothes quintessential to a young, psuedourban styled skateboarder. His character imitates a voice often associated with surfers, skateboarders, and snowborders. Cannon, a well-known comedic actor, also donned a pair of 1980s large metal-framed glasses giving him the end-result of a geeky overall appearance. The term "White People Party Mix" is a title directed to a particular market, but social media is beginning to question whether he is acting like a racist.
Many news outlets mislabeled Nick Cannon's makeup stunt with the socially unacceptable "whiteface" appearance. Historically, "whiteface" and "blackface" are typically considered derogatory artistic forms of expression stemming from the beginning of the Vaudevillian era which was from about the early 1880s through the 1930s. In 1895, the "New York Dramatic News" first printed the term "blackface" in reference to Vaudevillian star Lew Dockstader, a white actor-comedian who dressed his face in a base of black clown makeup and large red clown lips.
Vaudevillian "whiteface" is generally when a black actor dresses his or her face in a base of white clown make up and large red or white clown lips. The makeup is usually designed to place an emphasis on the whites of the eyes to make them pop. Another characteristic feature of a classic Vaudevillian costume is a baggy three-pieced tuxedo suit, white butler gloves, and a large top hat. The classic behavior of a Vaudevillian in "whiteface" or "blackface" is that of buffoonery and feigning intellectual ignorance. Ironically, Nick Cannon, made a spoof video in real blackface prior to the WPPM video series. The spoof video sends a message to Cannon's Instagram followers that the hip-hop industry is in jeopardy of regressing back to that humiliating form of buffoonery if rappers and artists don't protect their interests and take heed of industry predators. The spoof video doesn't appear to have garnered more interests than the promotional WPPM video series.
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Over the years, many actors have donned flesh-colored or brown-skin colored make-up and regular street clothes in order to give the appearance of a real white or black person's identity different than that of the actor's actual race. For example, in 1970, black actor Godfrey Cambridge played the role of a white business man who one day wakes up to find he's Black in the movie "The Watermelon Man." In the 1980s, Black comedian Eddie Murphy played a white business man in a Saturday Night Live skit. In the 1990s, Black comedians Shawn and Marlon Wayans played the role of two high-society white women who they impersonated in an undercover police detective operation. These acting stunts were performed all in the name of tasteless on-screen comedy.
Women have also been known to race-cross dress in full make-up. In the 1990s, Black actress Whoopi Goldberg successfully combined her race-cross dressing, gender-cross dressing, and age-cross dressing talents. In "The Associate," she played the role of a young black female financial advisor who felt she had to dress up as an older white business man before anyone would take her financial advice seriously. Also performed in the name of comedy, this role seemed to make a bit of a statement regarding a socially conscious issue in a comedic, light-hearted manner.
Julianne Hough, race-cross dressed in full make-up as a Halloween stunt. Fare skinned Hough put a deep bronzer on her skin, put her hair up into four bush-balls, and wore an orange prison jumpsuit to a Halloween party with some friends similarly dressed in orange prison attire.Though in poor taste and quite insensitive, Julianne Hough was not actually in blackface. Her sentiment connecting black people to prison jumpsuits however has been perceived to set the same incendiary tone as that of someone wearing blackface.
On October 8, 1993, Ted Danson made the social mistake of showing up at a Friar's Club comedy roast, in honor of then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg, dressed in traditional Vaudevillian blackface. Danson performed a monologue full of racial slurs and uttered the "N" word many times. He emphasized his monologue by eating watermelon. Danson got flack because he was perceived to be making an outrageously over-the-top mockery of Goldberg's accomplishments and of their interracial relationship.
Traditional blackface is rooted in its tradition to make powerless slaves dress up like clowns and entertain white slave-owners and their patrons in a humiliating manner. Since most slaves weren't permitted to read or write, after slavery was abolished, they learned to make ends meet in this clownish fashion by commercializing their humiliating comedy acts for profit. Eventually, after Vaudeville became unpopular, remnants of the artform have been relied upon to spread bigotry and hate. For example, the bufoonery imagery has been used to make race-related statements designed to publicly humiliate upwardly mobile Blacks, or to make covert, hateful racial slurs about other social or political circumstances, individuals, or groups.
For, example, in February 2014 white reality television star Kim Kardashian, currently engaged to Black music mogul Kanye West, had a real-life negative encounter with self-proclaimed comedian Chris Stephan who dressed in blackface. While at a Viennese Ball, Stephan allegedly accosted Kardashian at the gala dressed in traditional blackface. He appeared to be dressed in a traditional Vaudevillian blackfaced makeup and tuxedo suit costume. The neo-Vaudevillian was carrying a picture of Kim Kardashian appearing to mock her interracial relationship with Kanye West.
President Barack Obama, a man that should receive a show of the highest respect for his achievement of being elected the first Black president in United States (U.S.) history since the signing of the U.S. Constitution, has also been portrayed in blackface by those who oppose his candidacy and two-terms in office.
In 2006 the FX network aired a series entitled "Black. White." In this series, the FX producers cast a Black family and a white family who each race-cross dressed in full makeup in order to interact with strangers and each other in order to document any different treatment they received being of a different race. The results of the race-swap were eye-opening indeed, as each of the reality actors noticed remarkable advantages and disadvantages to having different skin color than that with which they were born.
So, where to draw the line between traditional whiteface or blackface and comedic race-swapping? Brushing up on Black history and the Vaudevillian era can help one to understand for themselves where to draw the line moving forward. And, one needs to consider whether or not Nick Cannon's sentiments were coming from a place of hate or sheer comedic ignorance. It's worthy to note, tasteless comedy is rooted in the seed of ignorance sowed by a substantially goodhearted person while racism is rooted in the seed of ignorance sowed by a substantially bad-hearted person. It's probably best to give comedians like Nick Cannon the benefit of the doubt, until there is a clear sign of evil-hearted intent unveiled.
One must avoid the notion that each of these incidents must be labeled the same to avoid the appearance of a double standard and hypocrisy. To the contrary, each of these comedic cases needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis due to the individual character assessments and the nature of the unique circumstances involved.
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