From Blackface To Blackfishing : Code Switch Okay, news cycle: you win. We're talking about blackface. This week, we delve into the hidden history of "blackening up" in popular culture — from a certain iconic cartoon mouse's minstrel past to Instagram models trying to pass as black.

From Blackface To Blackfishing

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You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is out reporting this week. All right, y'all, so you know how we said last week that we were not going to talk about blackface. We said that. We did say that because what else is there to say about it - right? - besides, why the hell are people still doing this? Well, these last few news cycles, they have been a hydrant.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Luxury fashion brand Gucci stopped selling a sweater after criticism that it resembled blackface.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Katy Perry's shoes yanked off shelves after she says she was saddened when they were compared to blackface.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Overnight, Virginia's Democratic governor apologized for this yearbook photo.

JOY REID: The photo shows one person in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The governor told prominent Democrats this morning he now believes he is not in the picture.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Northam alluded to other actions in his past, saying in 1984, he won a dance contest where he wore dark shoe polish on his face.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: While, as that plays out, the state's attorney general, Mark Herring, revealing that he, like the state's governor, appeared in blackface while in college. In a statement released...

DEMBY: OK, you win. You win. We are talking about blackface, specifically the ways that blackface has morphed in different media over time, which means, I guess, we need a quick explanatory comma. We haven't done one of those in a minute.


DEMBY: So there are a lot of different ideas about when exactly blackface started, but it's been with us for a minute. White people in the U.S. began blackening up their faces sometime in either the late 18th century or the early 19th century. And it was a way for white people to go out in public and act a fool in ways they felt were not proper for white folks. And then this practice moved to the stage. By the middle of the 1800s, blackface minstrelsy - this version of blackening up with singers and performers - was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. And the characters they portrayed were often enslaved people who were dumb and lazy and scheming - you know, even as they were building America. Go figure - the paradox.

That style of blackface became a tentpole of vaudeville. In the early 20th century, the iconography of blackface was everywhere. It was in advertisements on product packaging. The most famous vaudeville entertainers in the country regularly deployed blackface as part of their acts. All of this overlapped - not coincidentally - with the failure of reconstruction. Lynchings of recently emancipated black folks were becoming regular occurrences. Jim Crow segregation was being codified into law. Those laws were named Jim Crow laws after a famous blackface character. OK, that was your explanatory comma.


DEMBY: OK. Obviously, vaudeville been gone, so blackface of that kind is taboo in public life - or so you would think. And yet we have this drumbeat of stories we've seen over the last few weeks about...


DEMBY: ...Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, both the attorney general and lieutenant governor in Mississippi, Katy Perry's shoes - like, what are we doing? All this seems to underline this weird paradox by which blackface is both invisible in mainstream culture. Yet we have this endless treadmill of people who seem to know all the steps to this racist dance - like every Halloween - the shoe polish on the face, the wigs. Gucci - Gucci, the fashion house - they even brought back the red lips, apparently, in appreciation for the classics. I appreciate that. Gucci, by the way, they claim they weren't trying to evoke blackface with their little blackface balaclava thing. You be the judge. Anyway, last week, "Saturday Night Live" made fun of the way that even though this stuff is supposed to be verboten, white people, they just - they just got to scratch that blackface itch.


KENAN THOMPSON: (As chair of ethics committee) What?

ALEX MOFFAT: (As official) What if you were just goofing around with your friends?

THOMPSON: (As chair of ethics committee) That's still wrong.

MOFFAT: (As official) OK. But what if it was part of your costume of a black person?


THOMPSON: (As chair of ethics committee) I just answered that.

BECK BENNETT: (As Tom) But what if the costume won a contest?


THOMPSON: (As chair of ethics committee) What was the contest?

BENNETT: (As Tom) Blackest face.


DEMBY: So how exactly is it that blackface is everywhere and nowhere at once? Nicholas Sammond teaches Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. In his book, "Birth Of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy And The Rise Of American Animation," he argues that many of the conventions of blackface are actually hiding in plain sight, like, for example, that icon of Americana, Mickey Mouse.

NICHOLAS SAMMOND: Mickey's first appearance in sound - it's "Steamboat Willie" from 1928.


DEMBY: All right, so this was obviously before TV. People were going to the theater with their families to watch these things.

SAMMOND: And in that cartoon, he plays a stevedore on a steamboat, presumably in the South. And he loads the - he loads the steamboat with materials, gets on, and he starts to play a tune on the animals' bodies. And that tune is "Turkey In The Straw" - what we now call "Turkey In The Straw"...


SAMMOND: ...But back in the day, it was known as "Old Zip Coon." And it was from the minstrel stage.

DEMBY: "Old Zip Coon."


2ND SOUTH CAROLINA STRING BAND: (Singing) Ole Zip Coon, he's a learned scholar. Ole Zip Coon, he's a learned scholar. Ole Zip Coon, he's a learned scholar.

DEMBY: And it wasn't just "Zip Coon." Mickey's early appearances were just layered with markers of blackface minstrelsy.

SAMMOND: His facial characteristics, the gloves he sometimes wears, the way that he acts, his bodily plasticity, his ability to take punishment all are kind of markers of the minstrel that are actually - had - were kind of established by the time he came on the scene in the late 1920s.

DEMBY: We know Mickey Mouse today as this, like, kind, friendly character.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Mickey) Hey, everybody. It's me, Mickey Mouse.

DEMBY: But Nicholas says in those early days, he was a trickster. He was a mischief-maker who was always up to no good, just like the minstrels who were always trying to get over. And Nicholas emphasized, like, look. Disney was hardly the first to be doing this. In those early days of animation, cartoonists were cribbing from this visual language of vaudeville and, you know, from each other. And those white gloves, those are the gloves that blackface performers wore.


MEL BLANC: (As Bugs Bunny) Ah...

DEMBY: Bugs Bunny.


BLANC: (As Bugs Bunny) What's up, Doc?

DEMBY: Felix the Cat.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, meowing).

DEMBY: Nicholas said these cartoons were not just inspired by minstrelsy. They were quite literally minstrels in cartoons that had the same structure as minstrel shows with real people. And the audience that's watching those shorts in those days, they understood them as minstrel shows. By the time Mickey Mouse debuts, vaudeville is already on the wane. But blackface didn't die. It just left the stage and moved over to this new medium.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The makers of the new Rinso bring you the "Amos 'N' Andy" show with their guest tonight, Mr. Charles...

DEMBY: The famous or infamous radio show "Amos 'N' Andy" debuted the very same year that Mickey Mouse did and featured white actors pretending to be black.


FREEMAN GOSDEN: (As Amos) Tell me this, Andy. What has all this got to do with the letter you received from him?

CHARLES CORRELL: (As Andy) Well, I always been kind of superstitious about being left out of wills.

DEMBY: Amos and Andy would run in some form or another on radio for the next three decades. Meanwhile, the signifiers of blackface minstrelsy in cartoons, they just continued to spread. One of the most famous songs in Disney's "Dumbo" - you know the 1941 movie about...


EDWARD BROPHY: (As Timothy) The world's only flying elephant.


DEMBY: ...Was sung by a group of black crows.


CLIFF EDWARDS: (Singing as Jim Crow) I seen a peanut stand, heard a rubber band. I seen a needle that winked its eye. But I be done seen about everything when I see a elephant fly.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As crow) What'd you say, boy?

DEMBY: So, like, just to underline this connection a little bit, Nicholas told me that in the script for "Dumbo," the lead crow was actually called Jim Crow.

SAMMOND: And it's kind of an amazing song because it's - the song is actually kind of in the minstrel tradition in that it's all about the malleability of language and the slipperiness of meaning and being able to play with words.


JIM CARMICHAEL: (Singing as Straw-Hat Crow) I heard a fireside chat.

HALL JOHNSON: (Singing as Preacher Crow) I saw a baseball bat.

JAMES BASKETT: (Singing as Fat Crow) And I just laughed till I thought I'd die.

SAMMOND: And they're - you know, they're kind of magical negroes - right? - because they're the ones who give him the power to fly, convince him that he can do it.


EDWARDS: (Vocalizing as Jim Crow).

DEMBY: So there you go. I used to listen to that song all the time growing up. I'm retroactively mad at my mom for letting me listen to this, conditioning me - anyway. So then you have the rise of jazz, which created the first black mass culture that white people were consuming. And it's around this time that animators started drawing black people in cartoons a little bit differently. They weren't minstrels per say. They were becoming something else, something more ape-like.

SAMMOND: Vicious, violent, like, nasty, vicious caricatures - probably the most famous of which is a Warner Brothers cartoon from 1943 called "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs."

DEMBY: "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs" - you know, like Snow White And The Seven Dwarves but - you know?


VIVIAN DANDRIDGE: (Singing as So White) My hair's coal black, but my name's So White. I wash it all day and I get the blues in the night.

SAMMOND: But that's just one of many, many cartoons where they kind of literalize what they think jazz culture and black culture is about in kind of the nastiest caricature turns in terms of facial morphology, in terms of intelligence, in terms of behavior. It's incredibly violent. It's incredibly sexual. It's incredibly crude.

DEMBY: "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs," by the way, that short is part of what's now called the Censored Eleven - a bunch of Warner Brothers cartoons that have since been taken out of syndication for being too racist. So Coal Black was happening alongside Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny and Felix the Cat. But Nicholas said this newer version of blackface with these much more markedly racist caricatures, it's, like, so obviously racist that people just stopped paying attention to how racist Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat were.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, meowing).

DEMBY: After World War II, the nascent civil rights movement and the advent of television changed the terrain for blackface again. "Amos 'N' Andy," that long-running blackface radio show, tried to make the jump to TV in 1951 only with an entire cast of black actors in those lead roles. But the show's blackface reputation preceded it. And civil rights groups, including the NAACP, successfully petitioned CBS to cancel the show. So it was gone after three seasons. The weird twist to that is there wouldn't be another TV show with a majority black cast for another two decades. That's "Sanford And Son" in case you were wondering.

Blackface slowly became so radioactive and so embarrassing that many of the cartoons and the movies and TV shows that once featured it were retroactively edited and shuttered, which is one reason people have forgotten how pervasive it used to be, which is not to say that as these new taboos set in that it was absent from TV. You can find winking examples of actual blackface in everything from "Bewitched" in the 1970s to "30 Rock" in the mid-aughts (ph). But these depictions were sort of like, ha ha ha. We know this is bad. We're making fun of people who use blackface, you know, while still doing blackface. And the DNA of blackface has remained deeply embedded in American animation. And American animation, of course, spread out into the wider world. And you can see the way it influenced the way people drew cartoons in other countries.

SAMMOND: It's subliminal. I mean, it's like - it's so much. It's been there for so long. People just don't see it as blackface at all. I mean, because blackface has dropped out of other parts of the culture in large part, the kind of supporting architecture of representation isn't there. So it just seems like, well, these are cartoons. That's what they are.


DEMBY: So last week, I was on NPR's Morning Edition, which you should listen to, talking about blackface with my colleague Rachel Martin. And I mentioned this Mickey Mouse thing because, you know, what the - WTF.


DEMBY: Mickey Mouse in white gloves - like, Mickey Mouse is...


DEMBY: Mickey Mouse.

MARTIN: Mickey Mouse is an outgrowth of blackface.

DEMBY: ...Is - Mickey Mouse - according to some researchers of that period, Mickey Mouse is a minstrel figure. And so that's why...

And Nicholas Sammond said that Morning Edition conversation came up on a listserv he belongs to that's full of animation lovers. And they started fighting over whether Mickey Mouse was racist.

SAMMOND: It was divided right down the middle between people who were like, hell no. I'm sorry, he's not - and people who were like, well, actually, he is. And it's been going all day long, this debate about whether or not Mickey's a minstrel. And there's an intense, intense emotional charge that's attached to it. People have an incredible sentimental investment in Mickey that somehow doesn't allow them to consider the possibility that he has a racist origin. And I think that's because for most people, if you label something as having a racist origin, that means you can't talk about it anymore. You have to divorce yourself from it. It has to be obliterated.

And so they have this visceral reaction to have to defend it rather than saying, well, let's - actually, let's talk about how that happened and, you know, why you have this really deep sentimental attachment to this character. It's OK. There's a history there that we should unpack. I mean, is it OK? Well, it is what it is. Let's put it that way.


DEMBY: After the break - from blackface in cartoons to blackfishing on Instagram. Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene - just Gene - CODE SWITCH. So as I was talking to Nicholas Sammond, the cinema professor you just heard, I kept getting tripped up because, like, why is it that if blackface is largely invisible in popular culture, as he put it, if it has no supporting architecture, how is it that all these random 19-year-olds know to just go to Halloween parties and go ham and put shoe polish on their faces? What is this thing that they're referencing in their blackface if not blackface? And, like, why do they even want to do it?

SAMMOND: Well, let me run something by you and see what you think of it. To me, what kind of motivates this again and again is how much white identity requires a fantasy of blackness. The scholar Eric Lott talked about this in terms of what he called love and theft. There's this, you know, desire for those things that are considered desirable in blackness and the fear of actually being - like, having to deal with the downsides of being black in America.

DEMBY: As Paul Mooney would say, everybody want to be a nigga, but nobody want to be a nigga.

SAMMOND: And this isn't just about blackface. This is about the white fantasy of black culture generally, right? So I mean, that's where I see this coming from. It's that there's this is deep, deep fetishistic desire for temporary blackness or the benefits of blackness that then triggers an equally deep shame on the other side of it because they - people know it's wrong at some level, you know? I mean, how else do you explain something that just has been roundly condemned for generations and just keeps happening.

DEMBY: Which brings us to this phenomenon that people are referring to as a new form of blackface - blackfishing, you know, like catfishing. Lauren Michele Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. She's the author of a forthcoming book called "White Negroes." And in a piece for Slate, Lauren wrote that these blackfishers aren't trying to be black exactly. What they're doing is something more complicated and insidious.

LAUREN MICHELE JACKSON: Blackfishing is the relatively recent online phenomenon, particularly on Instagram, where influencers and other online personalities are using fashion and tans and other physical features to present themselves as possibly black or biracial or racially ambiguous when they are, in fact, white.

DEMBY: And in your Slate piece, you argue that those personalities, those IG influencers, they're not exactly doing blackface. They're doing something a little bit messier than that.

JACKSON: Yeah. So blackface as we, you know, traditionally think of it, we think of the dark, dark paint. We think of minstrel culture. There is at least some sort of deliberation about mimicking and imitating a black appearance, a black person. In this case, it's a little bit weird and a little bit different because, you know, obviously, there's no, you know, dark paint involved. There might be bronzer instead. There might be a hair curl pattern that kind of suggests Afro-textured or kind of kinky-textured hair. But there isn't the stark mark that we would associate with blackface. You know, it's a lot more subtle. It's kind of hard to tell, you know, whether or not, you know, they are really trying to imitate a black person or whether these are just styles that have just been inherited from the kind of worldwide distribution of American hip-hop culture.

DEMBY: So they're trying to mislead people - right? - or at least misdirect them.

JACKSON: I would say that - maybe not so much intentionally misleading people but, at the very least, enjoying the kind of ambiguity that their appearance inspires in viewers and people who are following them. So when we questioned, for example, Emma Hallberg, she said, you know, I am white. I'm white. I've never claimed to be anything else. And a lot of other influencers who have been kind of caught up in the controversy have done something similar. And yet on the same token, you know, when you go to their profiles, you can tell that there is a kind of love of, you know, having that appearance of somebody who, you know, is from the hood or from the block.

DEMBY: And also, like, the people who are responding to them seemed to be surprised when they found out they were white too.

JACKSON: Yeah, absolutely.

DEMBY: When we're talking about signifiers of blackness, who owns those signifiers?

JACKSON: It's so - yeah. It gets so hard to talk about the matter of ownership in culture when we think about the development of a certain type of hood culture in the, quote, unquote, "inner city." But, like, what I'd like to think of, like, as on the block, right? - the people who eventually made their way into rap videos. And, you know, rap is such a popular phenomenon now. And so we think of that as a kind of general American culture when, actually, these are artists who come from local places and are kind of representing the fashions and the looks that come out of those places. And so when we think about a thing like hoop earrings where, you know, black girls, Latinx girls, you know, people from the hood that developed this as a fashion statement, that has been appropriated by Carrie Bradshaw and...


JACKSON: ...Other popular figures. You know, in the early 2000s, it became hot. But there was a period in time where - some people still say, hoop earrings - like, ghetto, trashy. And then for some reason - AKA racism...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

JACKSON: You know, when it comes to (laughter) - when Carrie Bradshaw wears a gold, nameplate necklace, it suddenly became cool. And white girls were suddenly latching onto it.

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, one of things you're saying here that's really fascinating is, like, people are referencing references that are referencing references, you know, by the time they pick them up.

JACKSON: Yeah. So it isn't necessarily the most intentional or self-aware type of action. It just kind of happens. And so the, you know, proliferation of, you know, celebrities like the Kardashians who do a very special sort of tight walk rope with their own sort of ethnic identity - or non-identity in the case of the Jenners, who are, you know, kind of borrowing from their older sisters' brownness - all of this is just kind of in the same, like, matrix.

And so it becomes very hard to say that, you know, so-and-so is appropriating, you know, directly from this encounter they had with a black person or an encounter they had with black culture because they might not even be perceiving it that way or taking it that way. They're seeing it as, you know, an Instagram post with a lot of likes. They're not perceiving it as, oh, you know, I walked past this neighborhood. And, you know, I saw, you know, people wearing this. And I was like, let me put that on myself. No, it becomes part of their own experience. And they think of it as kind of just mass culture.

DEMBY: So could you sort of make clear the relations of power in something like Emma Hallberg, you know, putting her hair in a pony tail - in a long pony tail and bronzing her skin.

JACKSON: Yeah. It's hard because it's like in the largest possible picture, you can say black culture is perceived as being super profitable as long as it's out of the hands of black people. But then you look at an individual like Emma Hallberg who has so many followers on Instagram, who may or may not have sponsorships and collaborations with particular brands. And so in her case, I think it's really a matter of - you know, if a lot of people are saying, you know, this is super disrespectful - I think you need to be a little bit more forthcoming about where the idea for your styles, which you're being praised for - having such great style - I think you need to be a little bit more forthcoming about where that's coming from - giving credit where credit is due and kind of, like, maybe citing your influences a little bit more. But it gets hard when you talk about the level of individual. But ultimately, you know, if we are talking about a structural thing, you know, it happens through individuals - but it also happens through, you know, not just the Emma Hallbergs but the companies and the corporations who maintain fashion culture, who are giving these kudos out to certain folks and not other folks. And, I mean, these are the actual power players who have influence over what we kind of praise in pop culture.

DEMBY: One of the things that's really obvious when you look at this is that a lot of these Instagram models, who have gotten in trouble for this, are not in the United States, right? Like if you're in Sweden, like, the racial dynamics in the United States are completely foreign to you. And so does the fact that they're foreigners suggest anything to you in particular?

JACKSON: You know, the U.S. is really, really good at forcibly exporting American popular culture wherever it can. And so you can see your influences all around the world being taken up by people who have no idea of the regional and cultural and historical and political context of being black in America. And that's just kind of the way it is. And that is kind of what makes the appropriation discussion so, so sticky. And why I would say the intent is not really the object of critique - you know, the object of critique is this ravenous culture of consumption where the things that black folks invent and create and do is just so marketable. And America is so thirsty for it, and the world is so thirsty for it. And then so when you get to a person outside of the United States, it gets really hard to say like, I want to penalize for you for this, but it's not necessarily anybody's fault. It's just the way that our culture works and thrives and survives.

But I also would say, like, if we're all online so much that we can interact so much and see each other this way, I think it's fair to also say that history and education is online too. So like, if I'm a Swedish teenager, and, you know, I think hip-hop culture is so cool, I can learn about hip-hop culture. I can learn about rap music and where it came from. I can read the cultural magazines of the '90s and of the '80s that were so huge. I can kind of look to immerse myself in a way that isn't just surface level and, you know, skin deep literally. I don't know. It's - God, that's so hard because it's like - it's Emma Hallberg, but it could be - I mean, it could be anybody. And it's, like, all of us, and it's, like, none of us - like you know what I mean (laughter)?

DEMBY: That was Lauren Michele Jackson, the author of the forthcoming book "White Negros." So there it is. We talked about blackface. We're never doing it again - until the next time, I guess. To the people who've been emailing us over the last couple weeks about this, you know who you are. Just no - just don't. Just don't do it. This really isn't that hard. It's not.


DEMBY: The song giving me life this week is from the video that I've been looping during our deep dive for this blackface episode. It's Jay-Z's "The Story Of O.J."


DEMBY: I know it's a little in the news. A lot of you have seen the video, so you know why it's on the news. But if you haven't seen it, go watch it


JAY-Z: (Rapping) Light nigger, dark nigger, faux nigger, real nigger, rich nigger, poor nigger, house nigger, field nigger - still nigger, still nigger.

DEMBY: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. Sign up for a newsletter - And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or where ever you get your podcast. And leave us a review on iTunes please - thank you.

This episode was produced by Leah Donnella and Kumari Devarajan, with help from our fabulous intern Tiara Jenkins. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Leah Donnella. A big shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Kat Chow and Steve Drummond. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen Marisol Meraji is back next week. Be easy.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) I bought every V12 engine. Wish I could take it back to beginning...

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