This post was oddly inspired by the most ridiculous post on HuffPost.  There was an article about a "twerking flashmob", which really ended up being 3 black women in gym shorts and white t-shirts in various settings (shopping mall, subway, etc.).  For those of you that are unaware "twerking" is a dance move that has been appropriated by the likes of Miley Cyrus and other poppy wannabe diva types.  Unfortunately you can see it often employed in their videos.  Originally I commented on this fact simply because the observance of the post led me to the observance of the comment.  An observant blogger pointed out a more relevant use of this observation which will become evident as you continue to read.  Its origins are African, but I think you will find large disparity between what is portrayed by the flash mob and any number of films on youtbe showing various African versions.  I won't go into anymore of a description than that, trusting you to google or youtube it yourself, since it this fact is only tangential at this point.  At first I was simply amazed at the idea the someone at HuffPost thought this was worth reporting on, especially given that that 3 people does not constitute a mob.  Then I began to read the comments section and one comment in particular stood out among the dozens that appeared.  One person remarked: "Coonery and Buffoonery".  This term is extremely offensive, except that the commenter was black.  And the reasons have to do with the nature of the two words.  The word "Coon", is a derogatory word used in the Jim Crow era south to refer to African Americans.  I don't think this word should be used under any circumstances to refer to an African American but the second term was far more telling, and aside from the opportunity for a rhyme scheme, offers a context to the first.  "Buffoon" is a word in common used in English across racial lines and is used to refer to someone as an fool or an idiot. 

       I'm unsure if this was intended, but the use of both words together elicited images in my mind of early 20th century minstrel shows.  Minstrel shows are comprised of, what many refer to today as "black face".  African American performers would actually use coal or black face paint to create a caricaturized version of themselves in comedic shows largely for the entertainment of white audiences.  The skin would be darkened to absurd degrees and a white and red mouth would be drawn around the lips to accentuate ridiculously large African features, as well as the eyes to accentuate a sort of wide eyed idiocy.  This is a sensitive topic for most African Americans, due to the fact that early African American entertainers were relegated exclusively to these rolls.  Another reason why we are quite sensitive about it is because despite these being the only rolls for African Americans, some performers actually made quite a bit of money doing these rolls, making them difficult to put down considering the limited options for gainful employment at the time.  Another reason is that the industry eventually edged African Americans out altogether, in favor of white entertainers such as Al Jolson.
          I had a minor epiphany when I saw this article and the ensuing comment.  Some films that have been released in recent years really bothered me, and until I came across the article I was unable to put my disdain into words.  Sasha Baron Coen played two rolls, one in "Borat" and the other in "The Dictator" that I found tasteless.  So much so that I refused to watch them.  Reading the HuffPost article allowed my mind to make the association and I asked myself the question: "Is Sacha Baron Cohen a modern day Al Jolson?"  An argument could be made for that despite the cultures he was mocking having no history of minstrel type shows.  It is easy to dismiss this sort of thing as comedy, but the truth is that even as we deflate the caricature in our minds, filtering out all of the absurdity in the process, we are still left with an aftertaste and usually an incorrect picture of the cultures that are portrayed in these kinds of films.  Those deflated portrayals seep into the subconscious and are spit out again, making their way back into art and film.  And the cycle continues.  People dismiss these sorts of portrayals as "just art" or "just comedy", and defend the right of industry to make use of these images citing an oversensitivity to it, or a penchant for the target culture for taking itself too seriously.

      Then there is the other side of the argument, which says, that we participate in this sort of "buffoonery" ourselves.  A prime example is the row created around tennis star Serena Williams and the percieved caricaturization of black female sexuality by a White European tennis player.  I was offended by that tasteless display on the tennis courts of Sharapova stuffing tennis balls into her tennis skirt and shirt, strutting around and pretending to be Serena.  It's entirely possible that she meant nothing by it.  Perhaps she was simply pointing out the obvious fact that Serena is an absurdly athletic woman who generally crushes her opponents on the courts using sheer physicality.  Then I saw the HuffPost article with the "twerking flash mob".  And it also occurred to me that those women were just as responsible for diminishing the image of African American women in this country with, not only and obvious oversexualization, but a lude one.  How can we expect others to respect the cultural boundaries, to not oversexualize us when there are examples of this floating around in flash mobs and rap videos?  Rap videos themselves could quite easily be viewed as a modern form of minstrel-ism.
     Is it fair in this case for the respective races represented in these caricatures to claim a sort of prerogative when it comes to these representations?  Which is not to say that I defend or support them in any way.  I will always find them offensive.  But I find them just as offensive coming from the target race as I do from anyone else.  I do not in any way begrudge minstel black minstrel performers of the 20th century.  In many ways I admire them.  I admire them for enduring the countless nights in uncomfortable makeup, glaring stage lights, and back breaking humiliation simply to earn a living.  In modern times there is no need for that kind of self degradation but it still occurs only in different forms.  A more recent example is the minor controversy stirred by the portrayal of Tanto in the Hollywood reboot of "The Lone Ranger".  Despite Johnny Depps assertion that he is part native American, I don't see any self respecting Native American appropriating their own culture in such a way for profit.  Certainly there have been roles such as Chingachgook in "Last of the Mohicans", and Kicking Bird in "Dances with Wolves", but those were not "buffoonerized" versions of the culture.  They were serious roles that brought dignity to the people they represented.  Depp, by his own admission, modeled his character after a painting he saw, rendered by a whie man who had dispensed with realism and simply painted from imagination, failing to capture any sense of realism in the work.  Which is not to say he isn't entitled to his own creative expressions.  The paintings themselves were not caricatures to be fair.  But some might argue that they were still and appropriation.  So the re-imagined Tanto was a caricature appropriated from an appropriation.  Years after the original series went off air, we all began to admit to ourselves how marginal and offensive the portrayal of Tanto was.  Despite this, the multimillion dollar production was greenlit.  Hollywood effectively thumbed its nose at the Native American population.
      I think we find these portrayals distasteful because of the sterotypes they perpetuate.  Stereotyping is a virulent form of racism which is amplified by the subtelty of its use and the assertion that it is simply art or comedy.  One of the more persistent steretypes, as an example, of black folks is that we love fried chicken and watermelon.  At various times when confronted with this stereotype (I've fielded this question many times when I was younger) I often responded by saying: "Sure I love fried chicken and watermelon.  Don't you?"  My point being that almost everyone loves watermelon and fried chicken.  And certainly you would be hard pressed to find any self respecting southerner, white or black, who doesn't.  Let alone any human being.  My overall point is that these sorts of portrayals aren't simply art or comedy.  Some of them are clearly designed to make the target culture feel self conscious about themselves.  And even if this is only a secondary effect of the portrayal, shouldn't we stop doing them?  There has been a lot of attention being given to the fashion industry in recent years regarding women and body issues.  The portrayals in the fashion industry perpetuates a body image that is unrealistic, and many attribute this to various body dysmorphias. The only difference between that and cultural/racial appropriation is that it effects us along gender lines instead.
       The sad truth is that very little can be done to stem the tide of these sorts of portrayals.  Which doesn't mean it is hopeless.  People have to begin to understand the impact of these sorts of things on their own psyche as well as the psyche of others.  There has to be a degree of solidarity amongst those that are the target of the most heinous stereotypes.  And we have to be vocal in our indignation towards these things when they arise.  We should also, collectively lobby for more positive portrayals of our respective cultures and lend our support to those attempting to create them.  We should also withold our support for those businesses and institutions that continue to flout the rules of common decency when participating in such projects.  Most importantly we should refuse to participate in those sorts of activities ourselves.  It is difficult to call out a tennis player for her portrayals when the ones we put forward ourselves are so negative.  It is ludicrous to chide the fashion industry for its unhelpful representations of femal body images when we are lined up outisde of boutiques and department stores waiting to buy the very fashions being peddled in the magazines I speak of.  Art imitates life.  But life also imitates art.  If we continue to be so indeliberate about representations of our own cultures, we will end up with cultures that are perverted and maimed versions of themselves.  The basis for who we are, respectively, as people will be handed down to us from corporations whose only interest is in making an expedient buck.  It is ridiculous that an institution or business should be allowed to tell us who we are, and to that end we should hold everyone's feet to the fire when it comes to cultural representations.

 

 

 

About the author
J. Austin Yoshino
Author: J. Austin Yoshino
Editor-In-Chief
That's what I do; I read and I know things.
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