“Playing Black” for Laughs

Costumes and makeup aren’t the only markers for cultural appropriation. Dr. Neal Lester explains the prevalence of—and problems with—“figurative blackface.”

There’s nothing inherently problematic—aesthetically, creatively or politically—about nonblack people rapping. That said, I have been curious recently about the number of television ads and viral YouTube videos featuring white individuals performing (or pretending to perform) hip-hop solely to entertain, and primarily to a comedic end. The popularity of these creations begs critical exploration and offers us an opportunity as educators to question whether performances meant as “jokes” actually reinforce negative messages about African Americans.

In December 2013, “#Xmas Jammies”—a YouTube video of a middle-class, white, heteronormative family from Raleigh, N.C.—went viral and generated more than 13 million views. The video Christmas card features a mom, a dad and two kids living in a two-story suburban home. They have just purchased a brand-new Toyota Prius V that matches their red and green pajamas. The family shares the year’s news and accomplishments via a hip-hop “remake” of Will Smith’s “Welcome to Miami.”

The kids are adorable, and the perky parents are talented performers. The piece is technically flawless and even attention-grabbing. They are spot-on to parody Will Smith, a mainstream, non-homophobic, non-misogynistic rapper.

Nevertheless, trappings of middle-class whiteness are on display for the sake of being clever at the expense of another’s cultural creations. “#Xmas Jammies” is one of many examples of whiteness allegedly constructing blackness through mockery, what filmmaker Spike Lee calls “coonery and buffoonery.” Folks—mostly other white folks—are raving positively about the creativity of this video. But this is yet another iteration of “all-American” individuals—educated, attractive, thin, white and privileged—imitating constructions of blackness for the entertainment of others.

“#Xmas Jammies” is not literal blackface, but it flirts with the disturbing wave of performances that resurrect 19th-century American minstrelsy—a popular form of entertainment in which mostly white males blackened their faces and pretended to be “coons” and “buffoons,” solely for the amusement of white audiences. These modern hip-hop parodies—integrated into the mainstream media as innocent fun—devalue the creative integrity and impact of hip-hop as a genre of social change and social justice. They also represent highly problematic and regressive constructions of race, gender and class.

African-American male rappers have long endorsed products and appeared in commercials. But recently, a number of mainstream American commercials have featured white middle-class families rapping and dancing with over-exaggerated postures and gestures mimicking stereotypical black gangsta rappers. These performances are subsequently applauded as creative genius on national talk shows that make no effort to critique or even question the social constructions at play. As Jim Edwards observes in MoneyWatch (May 5, 2010), “The joke in all the ads is that the characters are white but everything they’re doing appears black—or at least underlines how non-black they are. In other words, these ads are only funny if you accept their stereotypical premise: That black Americans like to chant songs about their hustler lifestyles while white people mostly don’t.”

Toyota Swagger Wagon” is a clear example of the corporate world mocking culture for comedy. The ad features an uncool white “soccer mom and dad” escaping their passionless life of carpooling and PTA meetings by posturing and rapping to a funky groove. The video features exaggerated hand gestures, Ebonics and slang—all contributing to a racially problematic meta-performance in which the parents step out of the “gangsta” role multiple times to assume their more responsible, white, Standard English-speaking parental roles. The adults in this commercial are well aware that they can shed their “thug” image at any point. After all, they are middle-class and white and possess all the privileges that come with that.

Some scholars of American minstrelsy say that putting on blackface—literally and figuratively—was liberatory for whites caught in the order and structure of “whiteness.” Blackness, on the other hand, gave whites permission to “let it all hang out.” The manifestations of these white liberatory efforts, however, have not been creatively or culturally flattering to black folks. White middle-class adoptions of black gangsta rap personas reinscribe whiteness as social accomplishment—smartness and intelligence, social order and structure—and blackness as danger, disorder, unintelligence, thugishness and chaos.

Critiquing these performances is not about political correctness or cultural hypersensitivity. It’s about acknowledging when and how a dominant culture mocks, stereotypes or otherwise caricatures another culture as one-dimensional. As educators, we often see these types of performances at pep rallies, talent shows and teacher follies. The next time someone floats a “#Xmas Jammies”-like idea at your school, consider this question: If it’s so easy for us to devalue a cultural art form by reducing it to a caricature, what does that say about the value being placed on the creators of that art form?

Lester is Foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

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