Whiteface (performance)

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This article is about the race-related whiteface performance. For the whiteface clown, see Clown#Whiteface.

Whiteface is a form of performance in which a person wears theatrical makeup in order to make themselves look like a white person, usually for comic purposes.[1] The term is a reversal of the more common form of performance known as blackface, in which performers use makeup in order to make themselves look like a black person, for comic purposes. Whiteface performance originated in the 19th century, and today occasionally appears in cinema.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines whiteface as "white or light-coloured make-up" worn "by a black actor playing a white character".[2]


The earliest use of the term noted by the Oxford English Dictionary is from the New York Dramatic News in 1895, and refers to the American vaudeville actor Lew Dockstader "in his new white-face act".[2]

The OED also lists a 1947 reference to the black actor Canada Lee performing the role of Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi in whiteface.[2]

In Jean Genet's 1958 play The Blacks members of an all black cast wear whiteface to portray white establishment figures.

The 1970 film Watermelon Man begins with Godfrey Cambridge playing a whiteface character, who then wakes up one morning to find himself black. Eddie Murphy performed in whiteface on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, and appeared in whiteface for minor characters in the films Coming to America and The Nutty Professor (1996 film). Dave Chappelle employed whiteface on his show Chappelle's Show in the 2000s.

In the 1990s and 2000s, several films exploited the comic potential of black comedians donning whiteface. These performances include Lenny Henry in True Identity, and Shawn and Marlon Wayans in White Chicks.

In 2007, Chamillionaire does makeup for a character in the video for Hip Hop Police.

Other contexts[edit]

In pre-Reforms and Opening Up China, where white actors were not readily available, films would often cast local actors to play foreigners for dramatic effect. By adding large prosthetic noses, red or blonde wigs, and a dusting of white paint, these actors would appear to be white. Among many other examples, Sanmao at School (三毛学生意, 1958) features a clearly Chinese actor as a drunk and pugnacious American, and in Qixi (奇袭, 1960) drunk white-faced "American GI"s plot in garbled nonsense that approximates English. In North Korea, examples of this are still seen.


  1. ^ Hilary Miller. "Nick Cannon Wears Whiteface, Sparks Internet Debate". huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  2. ^ a b c The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989), "whiteface", sense 3.

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