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 comical 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. Whiteface performances originated in the 19th century and today still occasionally appear in films. Modern usages of whiteface can be contrasted with Blackface in contemporary art.

Social attitudes[edit]

Whiteface, particularly in modern times, has been critiqued as being racist. Some schools of thought suggest that whiteface may be considered a racist art form. One suggests a link between whiteface and blackface; both art forms are described as serving the same purpose in art. That is, if blackface is an undisputed racist mockery of black people, then it should follow that whiteface is a mockery of white people.[2] The second major argument suggesting whiteface is racist is that the manner in which white people are portrayed using whiteface is typically demeaning. Whiteface actors often employ masquerades and caricatures as means of ridicule, thereby using whiteface as a tool to both reify and lampoon stereotypes of white culture.[3]



Whiteface rose to prominence with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This allowed the expression of whiteface performance to seep into popular culture. By the late twentieth century, black actors performing whiteface in plays and films was not unusual as a humorous device. The satire grew in popularity as time went on. By the 2000s, however, some experts began to condemn the art form as racist and therefore socially unacceptable. Since then, whiteface in art has died down to only an occasional occurrence in modern art. A timeline of key events detailing this summary is available below.


Whiteface and blackface[edit]

It is generally accepted that blackface is racist[citation needed], based upon a traceable racial link to slavery and racial segregation. For this reason, blackface is all but extinct in modern art forms. This isn't, however, the case with whiteface. Albeit controversially, whiteface is still employed in modern times as an expression of art. Those who defend the art aim to differentiate it from blackface, often arguing that whiteface does not draw on a legacy of racism in the way that blackface does, and that the art is a wholesome satire of white lifestyles. Opponents of whiteface argue that the art is primarily a vulgar retribution for blackface that derives its comedic value from imposing the indignity of blackface on white people.[8]

Whiteface and Jewface[edit]

Jewface, the portrayal of Jewish features, culture, and actions by non-Jewish performers, gained popularity in the late 1800s. Since its birth, Jewface has been critiqued as being racially insensitive, though in recent times[when?] a consensus has formed that it is outright racist.[9] The reversal of Jewface is perhaps best seen in Jewish performers engaging in whiteface. One such example is the Beastie Boys, who were championed as white rappers despite being Jewish.[10] This parallel between the white portrayal of Jews (Jewface) and Jewish portrayal of whites (whiteface) has been used to make a case for the racism of whiteface.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Hilary Miller (24 March 2014). "Nick Cannon Wears Whiteface, Sparks Internet Debate". huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
  2. ^ Linebaugh, Peter. “The Charters in Blackface and Whiteface.” The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, 1st ed., University of California Press, Berkeley; Los Angeles; London, 2008, pp. 94–118.
  3. ^ Romeyn, Esther. “Blackface, Jewface, Whiteface: Racial Impersonation Revisited.” Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880–1924, NED - New edition ed., University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. 187–212.
  4. ^ a b The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989), "whiteface", sense 3.
  5. ^ Van Peebles, Melvin. Watermelon Man DVD, Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004, DVD introduction. ASIN: B0002KPI1O
  6. ^ "White Chicks (2004)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2013-08-19.
  7. ^ McFarland, Melanie (6 March 2006). "On TV: 'Black. White.' is uncomfortable, revealing reality TV". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 6 July 2015.
  8. ^ Hannaham, James. “Beyond the Pale.” New York Magazine, New York Media LLC, 28 June 2004, nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/9325/.
  9. ^ "Jewface! - The History of Racist Jewish Stereotypes." Jewface Icon Small, jewface.us/
  10. ^ Stratton, Jon. "The Beastie Boys: Jews in Whiteface." Popular Music, vol. 27, no. 3, 2008, pp. 413–432.

Further reading[edit]

  • Marvin McAllister, Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance, Univ of North Carolina Press, 2011, ISBN 0807869066

External links[edit]