Several of these episodes, although with varying effects, comment on racism. Protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd and other recent cases of police brutality have had widespread effects, including new reviews of racial representation policies.
Given the ways in which black cartoons are often used to justify such violence, questioning black representation in popular culture is a natural consequence of the movement. But as a scholar working on racial caricature, I can't help but feel that dragging on these episodes demonstrates a mere superficial commitment to this story and an inability to accurately recognize what makes racist depictions harmful.
It is easier to extract these episodes than to do the hard work of thinking through the embedded nature of black caricature and racism in popular culture, not just in the United States but around the world.
Historically, the black face has been implemented in approximately three different ways in popular culture: the traditional form of non-black people who wear black faces; Black people who have been forced to use blackface (or other stereotypical performances) to work in limited entertainment markets; and non-black people who implement speech patterns or performances that evoke black identity or caricatures of black identity.
One thing is clear: if we remove all traces of racism from the canon of pop culture, we would be left with the rather fragmented legacy of the works. When I teach about the history of popular culture in the United States, I emphasize that African Americans, and the racist cartoon, are not peripheral to their development. They are at the center of everything.
And outside of black representation, the vast majority of westerns are racist representations of indigenous peoples, and the entire film genre that emerged in the wake of the "war on drugs" has been cartoon after cartoon of people from Central America and the South.
This history of representations is damaging because toxic stereotypes about diverse races and ethnicities have circulated, fictitious accompaniments to discriminatory and dehumanizing opinions. I am baffled by the removal of some of these episodes, which seems to be about something else.
Furthermore, the discussion of representation alone leaves out the practices of exclusion, discrimination, and bad faith economic deals that have made real life for artists of color far worse than that of their white counterparts.
There are arguments to consider about whether the episode "30 Rock" about the conflicts between white feminism and anti-black racism succeeds in reaching these debates, but when we can't see it, we can't even have the conversation. .
Most disturbingly, why delete a brilliant episode of "The Golden Girls" about racism? In "Mixed Blessings," Dorothy's son Michael approaches her with the news that he is marrying a black woman, Lorraine. Dorothy clearly harbors some discriminatory beliefs about interracial marriage. But then we learn that Michael's fiancé is twice his age, which is much more annoying for Dorothy. Both families are against the marriage but they come to accept it in the course of the episode.
The "black face" scene in question depicts Dorothy's friends, Rose and Blanche, walking over visiting families in clay masks for facials; The comical moment and discomfort caused by the scene demonstrate the awareness among the writers and the audience of the show that it would be offensive and inappropriate if they were really on the black face. The object of the joke is the situation, not the blacks.
I've come across some white women in mud masks at spas throughout my life, but unless they started talking in black dialect stereotype and chanting "Camptown race", I wouldn't see it as offensive.
Part of what makes this episode work like an anti-racist episode is that it doesn't treat Dorothy's racism as acceptable. This is in contrast to students who dress black-faced for Halloween, making a nasty joke to their peers, or when people clearly display the racist stereotype to suggest that blacks are grotesque, criminal, or comical.
Furthermore, there is a great deal of relentless racist logic in the media that is much more subtle than blackface. For example, I'm still pissed about a season 1 episode on racism in "Friday Night Lights," which is also considered one of the best television dramas of the 21st century.
After a couple of very smart episodes about a coach who echoed the often-stated racist notion that black men weren't smart enough to be quarterbacks and the reactions of black players, in "Black Eyes and Broken Hearts "the coach is narratively rehabilitated. He is shown knowing how to speak to another racist coach and protect a black player from "worst" racists and be arrested without cause, in a scene that strongly suggests that he will become a victim of police violence. The offending black player forgives the coach.
This clear resolution of a promisingly messy story reflects the kind of insidious logic that runs through our culture: a narrative that tries to pressure blacks to see that racists can be helpful to them and that forgiving them is always the most ethical thing to do. .
As troublesome and offensive as I think it is, I'm not asking for this episode of "Friday Night Lights" to be removed. Nor am I saying that there is nothing wrong with the black face. Clearly, the world will not suffer if she never sees Jane Krakowski black-faced again. But I am afraid that deleting the episodes, some of which actually open discussions on racist representation, simply seeks an easy, non-substantive approach to more difficult questions about more dangerous racist logics and practices in Hollywood culture.