Facing the Mirror

The latest in celebrity outings happened late last week when late-night talk show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon was criticized for a Saturday Night Live skit he did 20 years ago where he impersonated Chris Rock.

For clarification, Jimmy Fallon is white and Chris Rock is black. In impersonating Chris Rock, Fallon wore blackface and it was this in particular that earned the ire of certain people. Dutifully, Fallon issued a heartfelt apology for his offensive actions. That is the expected response whenever anybody anywhere anytime criticizes you for something they decide was racist.

I was pleased to see that actor/comedian Jamie Foxx came to Fallon’s defense, drawing an important distinction between appearing in blackface to make fun of an entire race, and doing a particular impression of a particular person who happens to be of another race. Fair warning if you click on Foxx’ response above it is not exactly child-friendly. While doing a comedy sketch is unpardonable, public profanity is perfectly acceptable these days.

Foxx makes an important distinction. Fallon was impersonating a particular individual who happens to be black. He was not doing a caricature of all black people. I tend to agree with Foxx that Fallon’s impersonation was pretty good, though understandably tastes will vary. Comedic tastes may vary widely, but just because you didn’t find his impersonation very good or funny shouldn’t (and hopefully wasn’t) be the basis for alleging racism.

Is it impermissible to impersonate any other race but your own? I imagine it should have a great deal to do with what the purpose is, although we have to admit at the same time that what is considered an acceptable intention in one age may not be considered acceptable in another age – even just 20 years later.

Still, if the overriding principle is that nobody should ever portray another race other than their own, this principle should be evenly applied rather than targeting white people impersonating black people.

Is anyone calling for public apologies and/or self-immolation from the Wayans brothers and their whiteface movie White Chicks? That movie is only 16 years old and they were impersonating a particular kind of white female, but not specific white females. Seems like this ought to be grounds for an outcry, right?

Or Martin Lawrence might be called out for putting whiteface on as a recurring character on his TV show, Martin? Again, not impersonating a person but a kind of person. Appropriate?

Whoopi Goldberg in The Associate?

I’ll leave off pointing out Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle because their purposes were ostensibly to expose racism.

But we certainly needn’t limit it to white and black people impersonating each other. What about the universally lovable Tom Hanks? Should he be blackballed for dressing up as a woman for Bosom Buddies?

Pretending to be someone you’re not is not necessarily criminal. We teach kids to do this for Halloween. What you do with your impersonation could indeed be very, very wrong. That judgment has to be exercised within the current cultural conditions, though, and it’s unfair to call out a racist impersonation if it was not considered racist at the time – admittedly a complicated if not Gordian Knot to unravel.

It would be more helpful in the pursuit of better race relations to have conversations about these things rather than flinging hateful accusations to elicit knee-jerk reactions. This matter with Jimmy Fallon is going to quickly disappear, as it should. But it’s unfortunate that it was raised without an ability or desire to actually engage in discussion about whether what he did was racist in general, was racist 20 years ago, or racist only now. A chance to educate about comedy and that funny doesn’t always equate to insulting.

No word from Chris Rock on what he thinks of the allegations or what he thought or currently thinks of Fallon’s impersonation. Hopefully he’ll have something helpful and witty to contribute, something fitting for a man with a keen insight into human nature as well as race relations.

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