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OPINION

Blackface and white lies

Celebrities now apologizing for using the racist trope for laughs have no idea just how sorry they really are.

Tina Fey, seen here at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, is a taking episodes of "30 Rock" with characters in blackface "out of circulation."
Tina Fey, seen here at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, is a taking episodes of "30 Rock" with characters in blackface "out of circulation."Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

George Floyd did not die so that Tina Fey could finally recognize that blackface is wrong.

Nor should it have taken his gruesome killing in May under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for Jimmy Fallon to acknowledge, after 20 long years, that his wearing blackface was “unquestionably offensive.”

Leave it to white celebrities to find a way to make the Black Lives Matter movement all about their sudden contrition.

As of this writing, ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel is the latest white comedian who, in recent weeks, has apologized for wearing blackface, a virulent racist practice that predates the Civil War.

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For years on radio in the mid-1990s, Kimmel impersonated former NBA star Karl Malone with vernacular that could have been plucked from a minstrel show. He later brought the skit to TV, donning skin-darkening makeup. In a statement, Kimmel offered a defensive apology that was more about chiding critics who might now impugn his perceived wokeness (he’s a staunch Trump critic) than explaining why he thought wearing blackface was so funny.

At least Kimmel, unlike Fey, hasn’t purged the clips. Episodes of her NBC sitcom “30 Rock” in which cast members or guest stars (including Jon Hamm) wore blackface will be “taken out of circulation,” she said. They will no longer be available on streaming services or for purchase on iTunes or Google Play.

“Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness,” Fey said in a statement. She isn’t protecting future generations; she’s whitewashing her legacy. Even her reference to “race-changing make-up” sanitizes what blackface has always been — race-mocking makeup.

Say that, Tina, say that.

Fallon, host of the “The Tonight Show,” tweeted that he “made a terrible decision” wearing blackface while impersonating Chris Rock on “Saturday Night Live” in 2000. After the clip resurfaced online, he tweeted, “I am not a racist.”

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As Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” told Fallon weeks later on his show, “I think white people should remove that phrase from their vocabulary — ‘I’m not racist.’ Trust me — it’s not convincing to Black people.”

Neither are all these reputation-saving apologies.

In America, ignorance is a privilege, and too many white people wear it like an immunity shield. “I didn’t know” does not equal absolution. Blackface did not become insensitive or ugly in the past month, and Fey’s attempt at “ironic racism,” which professes to skewer racist themes, is no less racist.

Fey, Fallon, and Kimmel had years, even decades, to apologize. They didn’t. The same goes for the producers of “Scrubs,” a NBC medical comedy-drama that ended its nine-season run in 2010, and only now decided to scrub three episodes with actors in blackface.

Like the promised removals of racist advertising logos, this is a panicked reaction to an extraordinary moment. Floyd’s death, plus increased national scrutiny on the police killing of Breonna Taylor, and the hate-crime killing of Ahmaud Arbery, has sharpened focus on all the tentacles of racism — from policing to media to pop culture.

That includes blackface. From its mid-19th century origins, white people who covered their faces and hands with burnt cork, shoe polish, or greasepaint portrayed Black enslaved people as lazy, stupid, sexually wanton, and dangerous. (The better to justify keeping them in chains.) In antebellum America, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white man, became one of the nation’s most popular performers with the blackface character he created: Jim Crow. Disguised as wholesome entertainment, it bolstered white supremacy.

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And it’s not just white comedians who still use blackface.

When famed Russian soprano Anna Netrebko last year starred in a production of “Aida,” she was criticized for wearing blackface as the titular character, an enslaved Ethiopian woman. In defiance and in full makeup, she posted a selfie on Instagram with the caption, “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopien [sic] princess, for Verdi[‘s] greatest opera! YES!”

Years ago, I watched a video of a late 1980s Metropolitan Opera production of “Aida.” By the second act, the white soprano resembled a candy bar left outside during a heat wave. It may be a Verdi classic but, in blackface, it’s a minstrel mess.

That’s what modern comedians have evoked, and all of their recent apologies are reactive, not proactive. I don’t believe that Fey, considered one of the sharpest comic minds of her generation, only now “understands” that blackface inflicts pain and hurt on some viewers. That’s a self-serving lie. She knew, as Fallon and Kimmel knew, and only cared about getting a cheap laugh at Black people’s expense.

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On the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s website, an essay on blackface states, “In each instance, those facing scrutiny for blackface performances insist no malice or racial hatred was intended.”

That’s what we’re expected to believe. Fey is sorry, Kimmel is sorry, Fallon is sorry, and more still will be sorry. Mostly, they are sorry to be held accountable, at last. With these late apologies, stacked on the bodies of Black people, we’re finally seeing just how sorry these so-called comedians really are.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.