Whiteface is a type of performance in which a person wears theatrical makeup in order to make themselves look like a white person, usually for comical purposes. The term is a reversal of the more common form of performance known as blackface, in which performers use makeup in order to make themselves look like a black person. Whiteface performances originated in the 19th century and today still occasionally appear in films. Modern usages of whiteface can be contrasted with blackface in contemporary art.
Whiteface, particularly in modern times, has been critiqued as being racist. Some schools of thought suggest that whiteface may be considered a racist art form. One suggests a link between whiteface and blackface; both art forms are described as serving the same purpose in art. That is, if blackface is an undisputed racist mockery of black people, then it should follow that whiteface is a mockery of white people. The second major argument suggesting whiteface is racist is that the manner in which white people are portrayed using whiteface is typically demeaning. Whiteface actors often employ masquerades and caricatures as means of ridicule, thereby using whiteface as a tool to both reify and lampoon stereotypes of the cultures of white people.
Whiteface rose to prominence with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This allowed the expression of whiteface performance to seep into popular culture. By the late twentieth century, black actors performing whiteface in plays and films was not unusual as a humorous device. The satire grew in popularity as time went on. By the 2000s, however, some experts began to condemn the art form as racist and therefore socially unacceptable. Since then, whiteface in art has died down to only an occasional occurrence in modern art. A timeline of key events detailing this summary is available below.
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- The earliest use of the term noted by the Oxford English Dictionary is from the New York Dramatic News in 1895, and refers to the American vaudeville actor Lew Dockstader (who was white) "in his new white-face act".
- The 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game featured black actor Noble Johnson in whiteface for the role of Ivan, a Cossack.
- The OED also lists a 1947 reference to the black actor Canada Lee performing the role of Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi in whiteface.
- In the 1942 film Sullivan's Travels, as the final sight gag in the runaway bus sequence, a black chef's head is splashed with cake batter for a whiteface effect.
- In Jean Genet's 1958 play The Blacks members of an all-black cast wear whiteface to portray white establishment figures.
- The 1970 film Watermelon Man begins with Godfrey Cambridge playing a whiteface character, who then wakes up one morning to find himself to be black.
- Eddie Murphy performed in whiteface on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, and appeared in whiteface for minor characters in the films Coming to America and The Nutty Professor.
- Dave Chappelle employed whiteface on his show Chappelle's Show in the 2000s.
- In the 1990s and 2000s, several films exploited the comic potential of black comedians donning whiteface. These performances include Lenny Henry in True Identity, and Shawn and Marlon Wayans in White Chicks.
- The 2006 FX reality television show Black. White. had two families realistically portrayed via makeup as another race: One as blackface, the other whiteface.
- In 2007, Chamillionaire does makeup for a character in the video for "Hip Hop Police".
- In 2013, Nazeem Hussain used whiteface to portray Prince Harry in his comedy show Legally Brown.
- Snoop Dogg has posted Instagram videos in whiteface as a white character "Todd", and Nick Cannon promoted his album White People Party Music with the whiteface character "Connor Smallnut".
- Tahar Rahim as Prince of the Seal People in The Eagle.
- In 2017, rapper Aminé used whiteface in the music video for his song REDMERCEDES. In the music video, the African-American characters act like stereotypical white characters; whereas the characters in whiteface act with stereotypical black mannerisms and speech.
- In a 2018 episode of Atlanta entitled Teddy Perkins, Donald Glover portrayed the titular character, a former musician with extreme light sensitivity, in whiteface.
Whiteface and blackface
It is accepted that blackface is racist. Based upon a traceable racial link to slavery and racial segregation. For this reason, blackface is all but extinct in modern art forms. This isn't, however, the case with whiteface. Albeit controversial, whiteface is still employed in modern times as an expression of art. Those who defend the art aim to differentiate it from blackface, often arguing that whiteface does not draw on a legacy of racism in the way that blackface does, and that the art is a wholesome satire of white lifestyles. Opponents of whiteface argue that the art is primarily a vulgar retribution for blackface that derives its comedic value from imposing the indignity of blackface on white people.
Whiteface and Jewface
Jewface, the portrayal of Jewish features, culture, and actions by non-Jewish performers, gained popularity in the late 1800s. Since its birth, Jewface has been critiqued as being racially insensitive, though in recent times[when?] a consensus has formed that it is outright racist. The reversal of Jewface is perhaps best seen in Jewish performers engaging in whiteface. One such example is the Beastie Boys, who were championed solely as white rappers despite also being Jewish. This parallel between the portrayal of white Jews (Jewface) and Jewish portrayal of non-Jewish whites (whiteface) has been used to make a case for the racism of whiteface.
- Hilary Miller (24 March 2014). "Nick Cannon Wears Whiteface, Sparks Internet Debate". huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989), "whiteface", sense 3.
- Van Peebles, Melvin. Watermelon Man DVD, Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004, DVD introduction. ASIN: B0002KPI1O
- "White Chicks (2004)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2013-08-19.
- McFarland, Melanie (6 March 2006). "On TV: 'Black. White.' is uncomfortable, revealing reality TV". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 6 July 2015.
- Hannaham, James. “Beyond the Pale.” New York Magazine, New York Media LLC, 28 June 2004, nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/9325/.
- "Jewface! - The History of Racist Jewish Stereotypes." Jewface Icon Small, jewface.us/
- Stratton, Jon. "The Beastie Boys: Jews in Whiteface." Popular Music, vol. 27, no. 3, 2008, pp. 413–432.
- Marvin McAllister, Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance, Univ of North Carolina Press, 2011, ISBN 0807869066
- Whiteface as seen in Chinese Films AsiaObscura.com