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 the 1942 film Sullivan's Travels, as the final sight gag in the runaway bus sequence, a black chef's head is splashed with cake batter for a whiteface effect.

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.[3]

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. 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.[4]

The 2006 FX reality television show Black. White. had two families realistically portrayed via makeup as another race: One as blackface, the other whiteface.[5]

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

In 2013, Nazeem Hussain used whiteface to portray Prince Harry in his comedy show Legally Brown.


  1. ^ Hilary Miller (24 March 2014). "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.
  3. ^ Van Peebles, Melvin. Watermelon Man DVD, Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004, DVD introduction. ASIN: B0002KPI1O
  4. ^ "White Chicks (2004)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2013-08-19. 
  5. ^ McFarland, Melanie (6 March 2006). "On TV: 'Black. White.' is uncomfortable, revealing reality TV". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 6 July 2015. 

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