Racial Brownface

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Racial Brownface is a variation of Blackface in which a person tries to pass as Latin American, Middle Eastern, Polynesian, Native American, and/or Indian. This can be done using makeup, hair-dye, and/or by wearing traditional ethnic clothing to make a person appear as though they belong one of these "brown" ethnic groups/races. It is typically defined as a racist phenomenon, whether or not the offender intended to be racist. It is based on the growing belief that if a person is not of a certain color, they should not try to pass as, dress up, or imitate someone of that color. It is considered an unnecessary and offensive way of imitating someone of brown ethnicity by reducing them to their color.

Brown Voice[edit]

Brown Voice is the use of stereotypical, often exaggerated, accents when portraying a character with a Latin American, Middle Eastern, Polynesian, Native American, or Indian background.[1] It is most commonly found in cartoons, but it can also be used in live-action television and film.[2] The Simpsons came under fire in 2018 after Hari Kondabolu released a documentary that criticized the show's character Apu, voiced by Hank Azaria. He addressed how several aspects of the character were racial stereotypes that are demeaning to the character as well as Indian immigrants in general. The character's thick Indian accent, voiced by a white male, and the fact that he works at a convenience store were the two main issues addressed by Kondabolu.[3]

Speedy Gonzalez is a Mexican mouse found in Looney Tunes and other cartoons related to the Looney Tunes brand. His first appearance was in 1953. Since then, there has been debate over the racial depiction of Speedy as he is dressed in a poncho, wears a sombrero, and speaks with a thick accent. He was originally voiced by a white actor. In recent years, he has been voiced by Hispanic actors and has been embraced by the Hispanic Community as he is quite the opposite of most depictions of Mexicans: lazy and slow. He is embraced for breaking the racial stereotype, despite what the initial goal of the character's creation may have been.[4]

Historical and Economic Explanations[edit]

There are historical and economic factors that have contributed to the success and arrival of brownface and minstrel shows in the United States. Although it is impossible to say for sure why the phenomenon of brownface occurred, United States' immigration and foreign affairs have had an impact. Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 efforts to limit immigration and keep a sort of native purity within the United States has been common.[5] These sentiments to preserve native purity usually occur out of economic competition, seen most clearly in global wars. For example, after the [First World War]] in 1919, the United States passed a series of immigration laws that helped to restrict immigration in order to keep the nation more isolated.[6] Actions such as these result in an increase of social racism when immigration clashes with nativist sentiments. Today, federal efforts to decrease immigration from Mexico have helped inadvertently to reinforce stereotypes about Mexicans as being lazy, criminal, and unwelcome. This is only one possible explanation as to why brownface and other racist phenomenon have occurred throughout history and continue today. This and similar theories are debated and discussed to explanation social events like brownface.

The Bracero Program of 1942 serves as another possible explanation for the emergence of brownface.[7] This program was an agreement between Mexico and the United States and allowed for Mexican agricultural workers to come to the United States for seasonal work. This enabled the United States' wartime labor needs to be met. It also gave Mexican workers struggling to find work job opportunities. However, the political sentiments of the war popularized nativism, as global wars often do. Popular opinion in the United States was generally that of preserving the sacred purity and success of democracy. Increased interaction between other nations was seen as jeopardizing to these ideals. The Bracero program let more Mexican laborers into the country, propelled the war effort, and fueled both the United States' and Mexico's economies. This social sentiment of nativism increased racism against these laborers. These laborers often overstayed their work visas as economic opportunities were better in the United States. As brownface saw its reemergence in the next decade with Bill Dana's minstrel character, Jose Jimenez, and the Bracero program, unintentionally worsened racism against Latin American people and other people of brown color. There are social, economic, political, and cultural factors that allow for all social phenomenon like brownface to occur.

Minstrel Shows[edit]

Minstrel shows have been seen within the United States since the formal institution of slavery in the early 1800s.[8] They relied heavily on mocking the minority or the foreign, including race, class, and social standing. Their target audience was the white middle class, anyone who was seen as 'normal' or 'accepted,' and served mainly to reassure them about their own social standings and importance. Brownface, although always an element in these shows, became a much bigger part during the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a reappearance during the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. As economic and social factors during this time encouraged nativism and a shunning of the foreign, the increased immigration from Latin America and India led to the success of these types of shows. Immigrants and foreigners became increasingly unpopular and unwelcome, and entertainment and social norms based on degrading them became stronger. Brownface was used in these shows to reinforce stereotypes, portraying brown people as lazy, stubborn, and unable to assimilate into American life.

Jose Jimenez[edit]

José Jiménez was the character used by Bill Dana, an American comedian during the 1960s, to mock and humiliate Latino culture.[9] His appearance, and the increased prominence of brownface, can be credited to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during this time. As blackface and racism against African-Americans became increasingly unpopular, it can be explained that brownface and racism against other foreigners was the next go-to. Jose Jimenez was portrayed as a Hispanic man incapable of meeting 'American' traditions and values, struggling to learn English, and appearing lazy and untrustworthy. He was based heavily on racial stereotypes which also propelled his success during this decade.

Celebrities and Brownface[edit]

Year Film Actor(s)
2013 The Lone Ranger Johnny Depp playing Tonto[10]
2010 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Gemma Arterton playing Tamina[10]
2007 A Mighty Heart Angelina Jolie playing Mariane[10]
2001 Brotherhood of the Wolf Mark Dacascos playing Mani[10]
1968 The Party Peter Sellers playing Hruindi V. Bakshi[10]
1961 West Side Story Natalie Wood playing Maria[10], George Chakiris playing Bernado[10]
1960 The Millionairess Peter Sellers playing Doctor Kabir[10]
1934 Viva Villa! Fray Wray playing Teresa[10]
1932 Movie Crazy Constance Cummings's character, Mary Sears, plays a Hispanic woman[10]

Ben Kingsley in Gandhi[edit]

Ben Kingsley played Mahatma Gandhi in the 1982 film Gandhi. Although he is of Indian descent on his father's side, he is naturally fairly light skinned. In order to appear more like Gandhi, Kingsley wore darker makeup. He was accused of using brownface for the film in order to look more Indian than he is.[11] Other criticisms of the film are based on it's bildungsroman structure, meaning that the film follows Gandhi's spiritual transformation as he combats British colonialism and apartheid.[12] Critics claim that the film portrays his spiritual transformation as a transition into Christianity. At one point Kingsley exclaims that British colonialism "is not Christian" in expressing his distaste for it.[13] Gandhi was a devout Hindu for the entirety of his life, and many critics of the film claim that the portrayal of Gandhi as a supporter of Christianity and perhaps even a member is inaccurate and irresponsible. Another common complaint comes from that the way that Kingsley appears to become whiter and whiter throughout the film, especially as he transforms spiritually and could be described as becoming more Christian. Although there is no way to prove that his character actually becomes more white, the fact that Kingsley did wear darker makeup for the role gives the claim a basis. The film is critically acclaimed and beloved. Although as intolerance for racism and brownface increases, it has gained more attention and criticism for these reasons.

Paula Deen[edit]

In 2015, the American cooking television host Paula Deen posted a picture of her son in brownface to her Twitter account.[14] The picture showed her son dressed as Ricky Ricardo from the television show 'I Love Lucy', with the caption "Lucyyyyyyy! You got a lot of esplainin' to do!" Deen's picture received harsh backlash and sparked controversy as her son was pictured wearing a layer of dark makeup on his face and neck, in an effort to make him look like the Cuban character. She immediately removed the picture from her Twitter and other social media accounts, but still received criticism for uploading the image in the first place. Many believed that this was a clear case of brownface, though not meant to be racist or malicious. Her critics believed it showed ignorance on Deen's part and that attempting to change her son's skin color was unacceptable. This incident is an example of how brownface survives today. Although minstrel shows and clear acts of racism are uncommon, brownface is still shown in this way.

Current Efforts to Combat Brownface[edit]

In recent decades, there has been a push from Latin Americans to display their culture through entertainment[15]. This has resulted in more ethnically accurate portrayals of Latinos since Latinos are the ones creating and producing the work. Television shows like "Master of None", discussed below, and others are helping to shatter racist stereotypes and other contributors to brownface and brown voice. Similarly, government efforts continue to push for racial equality through affirmative action programs. While brownface is a social phenomenon and therefore hard to combat, through efforts like these and an overall distaste for racism, these stereotypes may one day disappear.

"Master of None"[edit]

Two friends[16]

Aziz Ansari, an Indian American actor and director, along with Alan Yang, wrote and produced a television show called "Master of None"[17]. The show follows the life of Dev, a thirty-year-old American, played by Ansari, who strives to be an actor in New York City. The show focuses mainly on the struggles of this, as well as the comedic up and downs of life in New York City. Most importantly, however, it shows the struggles of being an Indian American in a predominately white society, even a city as diverse as New York City. Ansari elaborated in an interview that many of the incidents and situations that Dev faces were inspired by his own life in the United States. "Master of None" is worth mentioning because it is one of the first television series where Indian Americans are portrayed in a positive way, and where most of the cast is Indian. Indian Americans have typically been portrayed in media for comedic purposes, such as the character Apu in "The Simpsons". Apu fulfills the offensive stereotype of an Indian American owning and running a convenience store and forcing his beliefs on those around him. Apu and other Indian characters in media act as comedic relief and to fulfill racial stereotypes. Produced and directed by Ansari, it gains status and trust by Indian Americans.

Affirmative Action[edit]

Affirmative Action is described as the governmental and local effort to correct discrepancies and unjust wrongs caused by racial division. As the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s brought segregation and the barriers faced by African-Americans to light, affirmative action policies arose to combat these complaints. [18] The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a piece of affirmative action legislation that ended segregation in an effort to take away the barriers African-Americans commonly fought. In terms of brownface and racism against people of brown color, similar actions have been made to help them better achieve equality with the typical American. Affirmative Action is seen everywhere: in schools, public institutions, the workplace, and much more. It is the theory behind why colleges intentionally try to accept more students of color, even if they sometimes are not as qualified as another student deemed to mainstream to qualify for this action.[19] Public jobs see this more as well, with employers often hoping to hire people of color to make their workplace more diverse and be seen as an affirmative action institution. Whether or not these types of action are biased or not is a very common current discussion, and controversy over this question remains. Some people suggest that affirmative action is merely an attempt to make law-makers who imposed unequal barriers feel better about their actions while others see affirmative action as an overdue effort to remedy the effects of segregation and similar actions that enforced inequality.[20] For brownface and the racism propelled by it, affirmative action often means more attention focused on people of brown color even while racism persists. Controversy and debate over the affects and necessity of affirmative action are common, though it is undoubtedly an increasingly prominent effort.


  1. ^ Dave, Shilpa (2013). Indian Accents:Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
  2. ^ Davé, Shilpa (2013). Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.
  3. ^ "'The Simpsons' reportedly dropping Apu amid debate over character". NBC News. Retrieved 2019-03-16.
  4. ^ VOXXI (2013-10-03). "Speedy Gonzales' Relationship With The Hispanic Community". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2019-03-16.
  5. ^ Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door. Hill and Wang. p. 19.
  6. ^ Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door. Hill and Wang.
  7. ^ Park, James. Latin American Underdevelopment. Louisiana State University Press. pp. 188–189.
  8. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth. Displacing Whiteness. Duke University Press. p. 312.
  9. ^ Perez, Raul. "Brownface Minstrelsy: Jose Jimenez, The Civil Rights Movement, and the Legacy of Racist Comedy". Sage Journals. Retrieved April 1, 2019.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Brownface". TV Tropes. Retrieved 2019-03-16.
  11. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth (1997). Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  12. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth. Displacing Whiteness. Duke University Press. pp. 60–86.
  13. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth. Displacing Whiteness. Duke University Press. pp. 60–86.
  14. ^ Grinberg, Emanuella (July 7, 2015). "Paula Deen under fire for photo of son in brownface". CNN. Retrieved March 15, 2019.
  15. ^ Aldama, Arturo J. (2012). Performing the US Latina and Latino Borderlands. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  16. ^ "Two Friends".
  17. ^ Subramanium, Sarmishta. "Enough already with the brownface". Ebsco. Maclean's. Retrieved March 15, 2019.
  18. ^ Rothstein, Richard (May 2017). The Color of Law. Liveright.
  19. ^ {{cite web |last1=Allen |first1=Anita |title=Was I Entitled or Should I Apologize? Affirmative Action Going Forward |url=http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=e61c8a63-2540-4376-b7da-d3b0e4442e25%40sessionmgr101 |website=Ebsco}
  20. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth. Displacing Whiteness. Duke University Press. p. 326.