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Two actors in brownface in a production of The Post Office in 1915

Brownface is a social phenomenon in which a white or light-skinned person attempts to portray themselves as a "brown" person of color, but less overtly and with a lighter complexion than traditional blackface. This may include mimicry of Middle Eastern, North African, Southeast Asian, Melanesian, Micronesian, Polynesian, Hispanic/Latino, Native American or other Indigenous, Southern Italians, Sicilians, and/or South Asian ethnic identity by using makeup, hair-dye, and/or by wearing traditional ethnic clothing. It is typically defined as a racist phenomenon, similar to blackface.[1]

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.[2] It is most commonly found in cartoons, but it can also be used in live-action television and film.[3] The Simpsons came under criticism in 2018 after Hari Kondabolu released The Problem with Apu, a documentary that examined 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7] 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 phenomena have occurred throughout history and continue today. This and similar theories are debated and discussed to explain social events like brownface.

The Bracero Program of 1942 serves as another possible explanation for the emergence of brownface.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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. José Jiménez 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.

Notable examples[edit]

Year Film Actor(s)
1932 Movie Crazy Constance Cummings's character, Mary Sears, plays a Hispanic woman
1934 Viva Villa! Fay Wray playing Teresa
1942–1947 The Thief of Bagdad, Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, Black Narcissus and other films of Korda brothers Most of actors and actresses on sets in Indian or Arabic roles, except for Indian Sabu.
1952 Viva Zapata! Marlon Brando playing Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata[11]
1960 The Millionairess Peter Sellers playing Doctor Kabir[12][13]
1961 West Side Story Natalie Wood playing Maria,[14] George Chakiris playing Bernado[15]
1968 The Royal Hunt of the Sun Christopher Plummer playing Inca emperor Atahualpa
1968 The Party Peter Sellers playing Hruindi V. Bakshi[16][17][18]
1976 Feathered Serpent A number of white actors, including Patrick Troughton and Diane Keen play Indigenous American characters.
1986 The Delta Force Robert Forster plays Arab plane hijacker Abdul Rafai.
1986 Short Circuit Fisher Stevens as Ben Jabituya[notes 1][19]
1986 Aliens Jenette Goldstein plays Vasquez[20]
1988 Short Circuit 2 Fisher Stevens as Ben Jahrvi[notes 1][19]
1994 North Kathy Bates and Abe Vigoda play Inuit.
1997 Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery Will Ferrell as Mustafa[21]
1997 Seven Years in Tibet In one scene, the characters played by Brad Pitt and other white Hollywood actors darken their skin with shoe polish to appear as Indians in order to escape from prison.
1997 The Lost World: Jurassic Park Harvey Jason as Ajay Sidhu
2001 Brotherhood of the Wolf Mark Dacascos playing Mani
2002 The Master of Disguise In one scene, Pistachio played by Dana Carvey, wears makeup that darkens his skin while trying on disguises.
2004 Kill Bill: Vol. 2 Michael Parks playing Esteban Vihaio
2007 A Mighty Heart Angelina Jolie playing Mariane Pearl
2008 The Love Guru Mike Myers playing Pitka.[22]
2008 Body of Lies Mark Strong playing Hani Salaam
2010 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Gemma Arterton playing Tamina[23][24][25][26]
2011 Day of the Falcon Mark Strong, a white English actor, and Antonio Banderas, a Spanish actor, play two warring Middle Eastern kings
2013 The Lone Ranger Johnny Depp playing Tonto[14]
2014 Jonah from Tonga Chris Lilley as Jonah
2019 The Laundromat Meryl Streep playing Elena [27]
2019 N/A Tomi Lahren dressed up as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Halloween.[28]
2019 Bala Bhumi Pednekar, a naturally fair-skinned actor, applied dark makeup to play a dark-skinned character in this Bollywood movie.[29]
2019 Gully Boy Ranveer Singh, a prominent Bollywood actor, used brownface to portray a slum dweller in Mumbai in this Bollywood movie.[30]
2019 Super 30 Hrithik Roshan, a Bollywood actor with fair skin, used brownface to portray a person from the eastern Indian state of Bihar.[30]
2021 The Family Man (season 2) Samantha Akkineni, a Telugu/Tamil actress from Kerala with fair skin, used extensive brownface to portray a person from Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India

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. It has been suggested that he used brownface for the film in order to look more Indian than he is.[31]

Paula Deen[edit]

In 2015, the American cooking television host Paula Deen posted a picture of her son in brownface to her Twitter account.[32] 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!" 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.

Rob Schneider[edit]

Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider, who has a Filipino grandmother, has been criticized for playing a Middle Eastern delivery man in Big Daddy, an Asian minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, an Asian waiter in Eight Crazy Nights, a Latino in The Waterboy, a native Hawaiian in 50 First Dates, a Palestinian cab driving terrorist in You Don't Mess With the Zohan and a Saudi Prince in Click.[33]

Current efforts to discourage brownface[edit]

In recent decades, there has been a push from Latin Americans to display their culture through entertainment.[34] 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]

Aziz Ansari, an Indian American actor and director, along with Alan Yang, wrote and produced a television show called Master of None.[35] 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 features the struggles of being an Indian American in a predominately white society, even in 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.[citation needed] Indian Americans have typically been portrayed in media for comedic purposes, such as the character Apu in The Simpsons. The episode of Master of None, "Indians on TV", specifically focused on white actors using make up to play dark-skinned characters.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Character's last name was changed from Jabituya to Jahrvi for sequel.


  1. ^ Trammell, Kendall (2019-09-19). "Brownface. Blackface. They're all offensive. And here's why". CNN. Retrieved 2020-02-03.
  2. ^ Davé, Shilpa (2013). Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
  3. ^ Davé, Shilpa (2013). Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.
  4. ^ Gandhi, Lakshmi (2018-10-26). "'The Simpsons' reportedly dropping Apu amid debate over character". NBC News. Retrieved 2019-03-16.
  5. ^ VOXXI (2013-10-03). "Speedy Gonzales' Relationship With The Hispanic Community". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2019-03-16.
  6. ^ Daniels, Roger (2004). Guarding the Golden Door. Hill and Wang. p. 19. ISBN 9780809053438.
  7. ^ Daniels, Roger (2004). Guarding the Golden Door. Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780809053438.
  8. ^ Park, James (1995). Latin American Underdevelopment. Louisiana State University Press. pp. 188–189. ISBN 9780807119693.
  9. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth. Displacing Whiteness. Duke University Press. p. 312.
  10. ^ Perez, Raul (2016). "Brownface Minstrelsy: Jose Jimenez, The Civil Rights Movement, and the Legacy of Racist Comedy". Ethnicities. 16: 40–67. doi:10.1177/1468796814548233. S2CID 147690806.
  11. ^ Tunzelmann, Alex von (2009-09-17). "Big hat, no cred: Viva Zapata! is a tale of Mexican freedom fighters that takes liberties with history". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  12. ^ Kureishi, Hanif (2017-09-07). "Birdy Num-Num: Peter Seller's Indian Characters". strands. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  13. ^ Corliss, Richard (2003-02-10). "That Old Feeling: Who Was Peter Sellers?". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  14. ^ a b Rodriguez, Jeremiah (2019-09-19). "What are blackface and brownface?'s explainer". Federal Election 2019. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  15. ^ Moreno, Carolina (2018-01-26). "The 'West Side Story' Remake Already Seems More Authentic Than The Original". HuffPost. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  16. ^ Manickavel, Kuzhali (2019-05-09). "Entertainment | Peter Sellers' The Party is the go-to movie for expressing anger over brownface: Is the ire warranted?". Firstpost. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  17. ^ Manickavel, Kuzhali (2019-05-10). "Entertainment | The curious case of Hrundi V Bakshi: Deconstructing Peter Sellers' brownface act in The Party". Firstpost. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  18. ^ Hassenger, Jesse (2014-10-27). "In 'The Party', Peter Sellers' Brownface Is the Elephant in the Room". PopMatters. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  19. ^ a b "Fisher Stevens: There's no way I would play an Indian today". YouTube. Retrieved 2021-09-26.
  20. ^ "'Aliens' Actress Jenette Goldstein Talks James Cameron & Playing Tough Latina From East L.A." YouTube. 2016-07-18. Retrieved 2021-09-26.
  21. ^ Stolworthy, Jacob (2019-08-01). "'Groovy, baby!': How Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me became the best comedy sequel of all time". The Independent. Retrieved 2020-09-27.
  22. ^ Idov, Michael (2008-06-05). "The Summer of Brownface". Retrieved 2019-11-04.
  23. ^ Ashcraft, Brian (26 May 2010). "Is Prince of Persia Really A Racial Whitewash?". Kotaku. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  24. ^ Armitage, Hugh (2018-09-08). "11 controversial castings that REALLY caused a stink". Digital Spy. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  25. ^ Allen, Nick (2010-05-28). "Hollywood accused of "whitewashing" over Prince of Persia film". Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  26. ^ "Disney is allegedly darkening white actors' skin for 'Aladdin,' and it's not OK". Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  27. ^ Olsen, Mark (2019-10-25). "Meryl Streep and Steven Soderbergh on the ending of 'The Laundromat' and that surprise dual role". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  28. ^ Walker, James (2019-11-01). "Tomi Lahren ridiculed over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Halloween costume: "I know this Is a costume because Tomi would never read philosophy"". Newsweek. Retrieved 2019-11-04.
  29. ^ Sarkar, Monica (2020-05-08). "Why does Bollywood use the offensive practice of brownface in movies?". CNN. For example, the popular 2019 film 'Bala' featured the story of a woman who suffered discrimination on the basis of her skin tone. The woman was played by famed actress Bhumi Pednekar (pictured above), who had her skin darkened in order to play the role.
  30. ^ a b Sarkar, Monica (2020-05-08). "Why does Bollywood use the offensive practice of brownface in movies?". CNN. Retrieved 2020-06-25.
  31. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth (1997). Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv1220r19. ISBN 9780822320111. JSTOR j.ctv1220r19.
  32. ^ Grinberg, Emanuella (2015-07-07). "Paula Deen under fire for photo of son in brownface". CNN. Retrieved March 15, 2019.
  33. ^ Fallon, Kevin (2017-01-17). "Rob Schneider's History of Being Racist: From Brownface to His Civil Rights Tweet". Retrieved 2019-11-04.
  34. ^ Aldama, Arturo J. (2012). Performing the US Latina and Latino Borderlands. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  35. ^ Subramanium, Sarmishta. "Enough already with the brownface". Ebsco. Maclean's. Retrieved March 15, 2019.