Nick Cannon’s “whiteface” Instagram has been making the media rounds as of late. As expected, incessant rabbling on social media platforms and comment sections about how racist or how hilarious Cannon was for donning his reverse-minstrel show attire quickly ensued. Just browse through the comment sections in Huntington Post’s article and you’ll get a general idea of how galvanized people have become over this picture.
But I think the majority of people are arguing over the wrong thing. What people should really be arguing about is how much of an idiot Nick Cannon is for gratuitously misusing the “stepping on thin ice” art of minstrelsy, not because what he did was racist or funny; in my opinion it was neither.
A common sentiment I’ve read so far in a few comment sections is the arbitrary double standard of modern minstrelsy. Those who say that what Nick Cannon did is a sheer act of racism is to completely ignore critically lauded acts of “whiting-up”, “blacking-up” and “enter race/ethnicity here-up”. To cry racism is to ignore the fact that minstrelsy gave Robert Downey Jr. an Academy Award for his role of Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. It’s to ignore Dave Chappelle’s whiteface and caricature of a white supremest for which he has garnered considerable praise for. Hell, that’s exactly what the crux of minstrelsy is, a caricature of culturally appropriated features. It’s the same type of caricature Sacha Baron Cohen performed as Borat for several years, for which he would later receive an Academy nomination. I could go on with examples like Eddie Murphy’s makeup where he played an old Jewish man in Coming to America or to a lesser extent, the Wayans Brothers’ White Chicks.
Those who comment on whiteface or blackface as acts of pure racism are ignorant of the fact that our society has always had a pretty good appetite for faces. We have a good track record of handling different kinds of blackface, whiteface or whatever type of -face in stride by how we like to reward them. We lend our acceptance based on what I perceive to be reasons of purposeful a) comedic absurdity and b) critiques on the absurdity in on our society. When a minstrelsy fulfills these two purposes, it fits into a gray space of racism that we are comfortable with because it becomes an art-form to us. It transforms cultural appropriation from just being “idiot comments meant to be amusing” to something that is profound because there is an intrinsic method to its offensiveness. As Marlee Horn puts it we have cues “that tell us as where we will accept appropriation up to the point where it becomes a mere minstrel act”. Those cues are contingent on the purpose.
Another thing is to consider what we even deem to be racism in the first place since that term seems to be thrown around a lot. Winant gives an excellent definition for what constitutes racism:
Today, a racial project can be defined as racist if it creates or reproduces hierarchical social structures based on essentialized racial categories”….Of course, any of these projects may be considered racist, but only if they meet the criteria I have just outlined: in other words, essentialization and subordination
Nick Cannon’s picture is indeed a reproduction of essentialized racial categories. Yet, to also say that it is also a reproduction of subordination or hierarchical social structures or anything with nefarious intent behind it would be a stretch. I don’t think this is the case.
If his hashtag on the picture (#RacialDraft) and “Bro I got drafted” comment are any indication, what Cannon has done is based in benign intentions that should simply be faulted by how misguided and little value it has. Put together with his uncanny resemblance to Dave Chappelle’s take on whiteface, Nick Cannon is lazily looking for a shortcut to minstrelsy, something akin to dressing up for Halloween or an “ethnically” themed party. He’s just really bad at being funny.
Let’s be honest,
Nick Cannon is no Dave Chappelle.
Nick Cannon is no Robert Downey Jr.
Nick Cannon is no Eddie Murphy
Nick Cannon is no Sacha Baron Cohen.
Those who laud Nick Cannon for his picture and how humorous it is completely miss the point of what a well executed minstrelsy is. Again, for whiteface and blackface to be palatable it must serve an actual purpose, their portrayals must have merit in both absurdity and skewering our society. This is where the real problem with Nick Cannon’s donning of whiteface lies. It it is essentially devoid of fulfilling any real purpose since it is done to promote his upcoming album “White People Party Music”. It’s gratuitous misuse of minstrelsy because whiteface is used as a self-serving marketing ploy. People shouldn’t be mad because they think Nick Cannon is a racist, they should be mad because he’s appropriating culture to illicit cheap publicity.
A particular columnist, Adriana Velez, gave Cannon ample benefit of the doubt for his provoking by stating “If anything, Nick Cannon is starting a potentially interesting conversation”. That’s to suggest that Nick Cannon had the intention of doing so with his stunt, which is pretty wishful thinking considering the whole point of his whiteface was to plug some album.