The language to discuss what I call “whiteface” in the Black community has eluded me for some time. Fortunately, the idea has remained fresh in my mind simply awaiting the moment when I would find the words to bring it into fruition. It has become apparent to me that “whiteface” is rampant in the Black community, and I find this both interesting and disturbing. It is interesting to me because society has went to such lengths to condemn the opposite of “whiteface” which stood out overtly as a form of racist dehumanization of Black people. It is disturbing to me because there seems to be little interest in condemning “whiteface,” something that I feel has just as deadly consequences for Black people. If “blackface” is one of the heights of racist dehumanization of Blacks then I would wager that “whiteface” does not fall too far behind. Much of this essay will key in on media images as they relate to Black life, and celebrities are overt representations of Blackness. Nicki Minaj, Vybz Kartel, and Beyonce are just a few of the people who perform in “whiteface.”
“Blackface” has been described as a form of makeup used to stereotype Black people. Many entertainers used “Blackface” to reaffirm ideas about the Black body and intellect. The practice was used to reinforce negative notions about Black people and Black culture. There is widespread contempt of this practice, mainly because it is such an overt form of racism. One of the most dangerous things about social issues is our tendency to only key in on those issues that are overt. We often give a free pass to those issues that are subtle. In my opinion, “whiteface” is a subtle form of racist dehumanization that we do not always key in on. “Whiteface” is used by Black artists to promote white supremacy in the Black community. Not only is white supremacy being promoted, but Blackness is once again being ridiculed and marginalized. This is the byproduct of Black performance in “whiteface.”
Nicki Minaj is one of the most prominent Hip Hop entertainers in the world. As she has become more popular she has fully embraced “whiteface” as her primary way of communicating herself visually to the world. She utilizes Whiteness to legitimize her celebrity. She is often seen performing in “whiteface” with a blonde hair weave that is bone straight. Historically, straight hair has been one of the primary ways by which Whiteness contrasted itself from Blackness. White supremacy teaches us that blonde hair is superior to all other hair colors, and that straight hair is superior to all other hair textures. What does it mean when one of the most prominent Hip Hop artists in the world eagerly performs in “whiteface”? What are the consequences of this artist promoting straight blonde hair over Black kinky hair? The consequences are out there, and one of the primary consequences is self-hatred. When we are lead to believe that performing in “whiteface” is better than living our authentic Black lives we are in serious trouble as a race.
One of the features of “blackface” was the minstrel performer applying burnt coal to their body to to mock Black skin. This practice was done to physically symbolize the inferiority of Black skin in relation to White skin. Vybz Kartel utilizes a similar practice in his performance of “whiteface.” While Minaj uses weaves and makeup to perform her brand of “whiteface,” Kartel uses skin bleaching creams. One of the main features of white supremacy is it’s teaching that White and light skin are superior to Black and brown skin. Too many Blacks have internalized this message and seek to alter their skin complexion by utilizing bleaching creams. This is “whiteface” pushed to a pitiful extreme. There are many ways for Blacks to perform in “whiteface,” to buy into the notion that Blackness is inferior, and as such hair texture and color along with skin complexion becomes one of the ways for Blacks to perform in “whiteface.” White supremacy is a global illness, and the consequences of this are seen in the increasing performance of “whiteface” among Black peoples across the globe. Writers like Kola Boof continue to call necessary and urgent attention to this epidemic.
Beyonce is arguably one of the largest entertainers on the planet. She has come to represent the face of Blackness for many people across the globe. She has achieved a level of success rarely seen by Black artists. As an artist, she has always straddled the line between “whiteface” and Black cultural pride. In her early years she was known for rocking cornrows, a common hairstyle among Blacks in America. But it appears that as Beyonce has moved closer to the height of celebrity she has embraced performing in “whiteface” more and more. Her signature cornrows have been replaced over the years with curly brown/blonde tresses. It wasn’t until her most recent album “4″ was released that she began to wholeheartedly perform in “whiteface.” The album art for her CD was painfully and pitifully “whiteface.” Her hair was no longer the corn rows or curls we had formerly seen her rock, but now stringy/straight peroxide blonde. Her hair hair had more in common with a European model than any African or Black model I can think of. I will admit that Beyonce is a light skinned Black woman, but there was something unusually pale about the artwork for her latest album. Beyonce appeared at her lightest and whitest in these photographs. There she is, on the cover, in all her “whiteface” glory. It becomes apparent that Whiteness and white supremacy are being promoted in this album by a Black artist. “Whiteface” trumps.
America likes to pretend that it has overcome racism. Integration is pointed to as proof that our society is no longer beleaguered by issues of race. I believe that the prominence of “whiteface” among Blacks is proof that racism, especially internalized racism, continues to plague our society. It is fortunate that “blackface” is rightfully seen as a practice that stereotypes Blacks and holds Blackness inferior, but we have not yet reached a point where we recognize that “whiteface” is also about promoting Black inferiority. Blackness suffers when we give “whiteface” a pass. Blackness suffers when do not call out “whiteface” as the promotion of Black inferiority. How can we value ourselves when we are so eager to perform “whiteface”?
The artists that I examine in this essay are not the only ones in the Black community performing in “whitface.” Nicki, Vybz, and Beyonce simply provide overt and prominent examples of “whiteface”. The practice is a problem throughout the Black community and it needs to be examined and addressed. There are many conversations to be had, but we can’t have those conversations if we continue to pretend like Blacks performing in “whiteface” is not a problem.
Note: The term “whiteface” appears in quotes throughout this essay because I believe that it encompasses more than what I cover in this particular essay. “Whiteface” appears in many different forms in the Black community, and it is my wish that you all add to the conception and definition of what it means for a Black person to perform in “whiteface.”