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Backlash for Nick Cannon’s “whiteface” photo

by Antoni Nerestant April 8, 2014
Backlash for Nick Cannon’s “whiteface” photo

Do we need to lighten up, or is this an upsetting display of reverse racism?

To promote his latest album that bears the cringe-worthy title White People Party Music, Nick Cannon, who is black, revealed a picture of himself on his Instagram in heavy makeup that made him look Caucasian. It has been dubbed as “whiteface.”

The picture was met with criticism and the public drew comparisons to the degrading blackface minstrel shows of the 19th and 20th centuries. With faces painted black and exaggerated lips, performers portrayed blacks as dim-witted, lazy and dishonest, among other stereotypes.

Graphic by Jenny Kwan

As a black man, I can personally attest to how those racist depictions are among the most hurtful and maddening visuals within our culture.

On the other hand, the attention-starved antics of the America’s Got Talent host spawned the following question: should a black person painting his face white draw the same ire as the opposite scenario? In my opinion, the answer is simple: Not at all.

The minstrel shows were instrumental in disseminating and upholding the crippling narrative of racial inferiority and that unfortunately continues to shape the black experience to this day. Whether it is on the basis of ethnicity, gender, economic class, sexual orientation or mental illness, heightened sensitivity is warranted for groups that have historically faced institutionalized discrimination.

For example, given the ongoing fight for gender equality, I don’t believe that a woman saying that all men are dogs is nearly as bad as a male counterpart saying that all women are…well, you catch my drift. However, that doesn’t mean the question is not valid.

In fact, it is a progressive step towards regulating an odd and implicit social norm — members of disadvantaged groups having carte blanche to ridicule others without any fear of reprimand. Cannon’s statements defending his actions only strengthen the point.

“Yes, we have issues with race in this country, in this world. It doesn’t have to be with hatred,” he explained during an appearance on Good Morning America. “There’s a big difference between humour and hatred.”

He seems completely oblivious to the fact that the stock he places in his intentions is completely irrelevant in other cases.

Madonna’s recent Instagram faux-pas — referring to one of her sons as the N-word in the caption of a picture — was harshly criticized. Her claims that the intention behind the use of the word was not racist mostly fell on deaf ears, mine included.

But naturally, when Cannon casually claims that the spirit in which he performed the stunt should factor into how we interpret it, claims of a double standard are legitimized.

In addition to posting the picture, Cannon included hashtags that included “Dog Kissing,” “Good Credit” and “Fist Pumping.” Although I’m sure they are not necessarily as derogatory as the buffoonish portrayals of African-Americans during minstrel shows, such sweeping generalizations are ultimately counter-productive.

It is in fact fair for some to perceive that there is ultra-sensitivity on one end of the spectrum while unrestrained ignorance is allowed on the other.

Of course, when tastefully done, humour that revolves around our cultural differences has the power to bring us together. Considering the immediate reactions, it’s fair to say that Cannon’s attempt failed miserably in that regard.

In the end, I believe it is reasonable for everyone to have the right to determine what they deem offensive. Asking anyone to relinquish that right because of a perceived societal privilege is anything but.

Cannon remains confident that his actions were meant to challenge our society to discuss race, which is fair enough. But just as he wants us to lighten up, some of us need to tighten up as well.

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