Opinion: Nick Cannon’s Whiteface And The Equality Of Offense

VIBE retraces the history books to explain why Nick Cannon’s whiteface photo is (obviously) not racist

We’re several weeks past Black History Month, and thankfully, at least one of the usual time-worn brickbats often lobbied in America’s exhausting racial one-upmanship game is off the table. If “why isn’t there White History Month,” and “if there’s BET on cable television, well, where’s White Entertainment Television?” are the usual exhibits A and B in the ever-circular disputes about racial preference and entitlement, then exhibit C has to be “why is it ok for black comedians to mock white people, but not the other way around?”

After years of walking the tightrope between the Nickelodeon mainstream and edgier fare, funnyman Nick Cannon has decided to plunge headfirst into this perennial controversy. Donning provocative whiteface and going by the absurd name “Connor Smallnut,” Cannon promotes both his new LP, White People Party Music and the virtues of being pretty fly for a white guy: the good (decent credit and healthy food from farmer’s markets), the bad (dog-kissing and fist-pumping) and the odd (beer pong and cream-cheese eating?) Jezebel immediately panned Cannon’s alter ego as “unsatisfying” and “kind of terrifying.” Fox News ran user comments predictably blasting the performance as “racist” and proof of a “double standard.” Perez Hilton wondered whether the comedian was trying to be “subversive” or just pull off an elaborate April Fool’s Joke, since WPPM drops April 1, 2014.

The comedic cold war over racial and cultural representation has been fought by black and white entertainers ever since the vaudeville visionary Bob Cole first answered the cruel mockery of late 19th century blackface characters like Jim Crow—the namesake of American apartheid—and Zip Coon with his own red-headed, whiteface hobo Willy Wayside. Willy was a bum with charm, sharing a common, working-class truth through humor and defying attempts to conflate race and class. Being a proud “race man” and successful entertainer, Cole had to embrace the ethos of the Jester, who traditionally in Western culture has been allowed to defy power and privilege and call out scalding criticisms masked as uproariously funny jabs and farce. Even the Jester is merely the embodiment of a much older tradition of satire and parody that dates back to the earliest writings of Egypt and Greece. Given this tradition, it should come as no surprise that over the last century, minority entertainers, whether Jewish, African-American or Latino, have been drawn to comedy as a means to a voice, an avenue to express views and criticisms that might be silenced in more traditional forms of media and entertainment.

Several generations after the minstrel era, John Howard Griffin, a white Texan moved by the civil rights struggle to darken his skin, pose as a so-called Negro and spend six weeks traveling the deep South via buses and hitchhiking, sought to break the links of race and class, sharing his experiences in 1961’s Black Like Me. Eddie Murphy revived this amazing story in the 1980s, unknown to many Americans then and now, in “White Like Me,” his brilliant parody for Saturday Night Live in which he discovers that artfully applied makeup opens the door to a world of privilege he never imagined: disco-style bus rides and free $50,000 “loans.” (Murphy gave another virtuoso whiteface performance as Saul, an old Jewish barbershop regular, in 1988’s Coming To America.)

Since Murphy, African-American comedians to test out the satiric and amusing possibilities of whiteface performances have included Martin Lawrence and his “Bob from Marketing,” Dave Chappelle, with his straight-laced, bigoted news anchor, and the Wayans Brothers, with their hit film, White Chicks. While Murphy and arguably Chappelle used the trope to make subversive comments about race, class and privilege in America, for Lawrence and the Wayans, it seemed to be more a display of acting chops and superficial ridiculousness. Certainly Nick Cannon is a student of comedy, citing his ambitions to attain a place in the hallowed tradition of American, and especially African-American comedians, as recently as in his January 2014 interview with VIBE; and it stands to reason that in addition to courting controversy, he is tipping his hat in homage to the aforementioned greats that preceded him.

As to whether it’s all a big April Fool’s Joke or something more subversive, his appeal to cliches–beer pong, the bland whiteness of cream cheese, “small-nuts” (get it?) and a Valley Guy accent, seem to suggest the former; but the jabs about the “racial draft” (a Chappelle skit where races “allow” other races to “draft” their icons), good credit and shopping at farmer’s markets potentially speak to a larger, more sophisticated criticism: is having a healthy diet and credit score really essentially “white”? Or everybody who falls into that kind of muddled, emptyheaded thinking, whether black or white, are they the ones playing the fool?

To his credit, Cannon has tried to draw out a tongue-in-cheek conversation via Twitter, urging critics to seek out Rush Limbaugh and organize a “million white man march”, complaining that his new so-called “privilege” is harder than he expected, and finally asking fans to consider if his attempt at whiteface is any different from Robert Downey Jr’s clever and complicated blackface performance in Tropic Thunder. But Twitter’s reactionary, ADHD-crazy, 140-character max nature isn’t the best fit for advancing thoughtful, good faith dialogue. In an era where folks regard the taking of racial offense as a perk akin to that of a referee blowing her whistle at fouls, and controversy as a flash in the pan that fades away faster than a Snapchat foto, here’s hoping that Cannon’s well-meaning publicity stunt doesn’t fizzle out just as quickly. —Gregory Johnson