Adele, Jessica Krug, and “Tanya”: Blackface, white power and rewatching Girlfriends on Netflix

Let’s talk about Blackface as Minstrelsy, Blackfishing, and cultural appropriation

Lisa Betty
Age of Awareness

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Irenne Dunne in Show Boat (1936) — https://www.themakeupgallery.info/racial/minstrel/showboatid.htm

This week while watching Girlfriends (2000–2008) on Netflix, I became annoyed. Although revisiting the show presented all types of problematic early 2000s narratives about Black life, womanhood, and community, I still accepted the nostalgia linked with consuming “my favorite show” as a teenager.

In the episode entitled, “Sister, Sistah” the audience is introduced to Lynn’s sister Tanya as a head wrap wearing, Afrocentric white woman displaying intonations of AAVE. The character of Tanya, played by Eliza Schneider, is well traveled throughout Africa and very comfortable around Black people.

In the midst of Jessica Krug’s recent blackface appropriation for personal and professional gain in academia — and my personal call for reparations, I had to fast forward through many parts of this episode. The audience is presented with authentic portrayals of Blackness as Tanya gaslights her way through the Black women characters and condescendingly shows off her knowledge of Black/African cultures.

We are to come away with Lynn’s perception of “Tanya, just being Tanya”.

At the end, Tanya presents herself as altruistically attaining Blackness as a way to support her trans-racially adopted mixed race sister Lynn and as a form of authentic “cultural appreciation”.

As the episode begins, I prepare myself for the fast forward button reminded of the Adeles, Krugs, and Dolezals of the world — and wonder if “Sister, Sistah” is their favorite Girlfriends episode.

So, let’s talk about blackface.

Blackface minstrelsy is the forefather of “blackfishing” and “cultural appropriation”. Blackface describes the historic and current misappropriation and exaggerated stereotyping of Black cultures, languages, identities, and phenotypes by white people, particularly for white/mainstream consumption and the acquisition/assertion of power. Blackface moves from cultural appropriators, such as British singer Adele, to full-time committed blackfishers, such as Rachel Dolezal, Jessica Krug, and most recently CV Vitolo-Haddad.

The many instances of white appropriation of Blackness should be defined within the context of blackface. This plays out vividly on social media where white and non-Black POC influencers use AAVE, memes, dances, and other Black aesthetics as apart of their online image and personalities.

Instead, with the support of mainstream media, tropes of “cultural appreciation” and “mental health instability” move into narratives of interpreting why, particularly white women, consume and misappropriate Blackness.

Sourced from Instagram, Nuestra Matria Borken, @nuestra_patriapr

Central to blackface is the dehumanization of Black people: Black people do not need to exist or be present for their “cultures” or representations to exist. Associated with the notion that Black cultures are primitive, simple, and easily mimicked and replicated, Black death or extinction becomes a key component of the way blackface has been used and propagated (Internet search: Black children and alligators or Black person killed first in horror films).

The use of Black cultures as if Black people are long forgotten relics is an important feature of blackface.

Detail from cover of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, arranged by Th. Comer, Boston, 1843. Scanned from Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy by Hans Nathan. — Wikimedia Commons

Blackface is a white American cultural form stemming from poor and working class white people’s assertion of power and whiteness in the United States beginning in the early 1800s. White people defined and redefined Blackness for themselves and mainstream audiences.

Blackface minstrel performances of “blackness” by white people “characterized Black people as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice.” With innovations from Thomas Dartmouth Rice, the “Father of Minstrelsy,” in the 1830s and 1840s minstrelsy became an integral part of the entertainment industry and consumer marketing products.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture explains that the growth of new media between the Civil War and early 20th century “ushered minstrel performances from the stage, across radio and television airwaves, and into theaters,” with popular American actors such as “Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney donning blackface, bridging the minstrel performance across generations.”

“The same blackface minstrelsy performance on page 99 of “The Greatonian” 1959 yearbook. PHOTO SOURTESY OF SJU ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS” from “St. Joe’s history with blackface minstrelsy” by Dominique Joe, https://www.sjuhawknews.com/st-joes-blackface-minstrelsy/

The ongoing existence of blackface as a white American cultural form propagated by mainstream media is highly problematic. Understanding blackface allows a fuller picture of how white power and centering is vital in white people’s acquisition of Blackness —as a prop or a lifestyle — from Adele to Jessica Krug.

On Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug:

In a world where they may not stand out as white women, they definitely do as Black or Brown. They use their conceptual knowledge of antiblackness within Black communities to center their whiteness as “lightness”. Their “insider” mastery of colorism and how white supremacy translates within a Black context gives them leverage and privilege. (As parasites) …they feed on the insecurities of Black and Brown host communities to not only center themselves, but to gain dominance, power, and expertise. From: “Jessica Krug’s Medium Post is Not an Apology”, Lisa Betty

The spectrum of blackface moves from the bantu knots and Jamaican flag bikini donned by singer Adele for the day to Jessica Krug’s 20 year adventure trying on different forms of cis-heteronormative colorism in Blackness. Although different, both exude racial, gendered, and ableist claimings of Blackness by white women to assert power and visibility.

In the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and a pandemic targeting Black lives by way of medical apartheid and systemic racism, Adele used Blackness as a prop to center herself and present her “new body” to the world.

She “whited out” the history of Notting Hill Carnival as a potential ode to Claudia Jones, international intersectional Black Caribbean-American activist who founded the festivities in protest of anti-blackness and white nationalist violence against Black and brown communities in the UK.

This violence, xenophobia, and colonial dominance exist in nuanced and blatant ways across England, in former British colonies, and current Caribbean commonwealths. Centering her message of support to include the recent “Windward” deportations and state-sanctioned violence against Black and brown people in the UK would have been vital.

But instead Adele centered herself.

This was a marketing campaign — a changed image to prepare for new music coming out soon. The entire hashtag #NottingHillCarnival became about a white woman’s attempt to assert visibility and power. Furthermore, Notting Hill Carnival was cancelled because of the pandemic giving the hashtag more meaning.

Photo of Claudia Jones with resources from @almostdrlisabetty on Instagram

Outside of the historical coloniality of her appropriation as a white British person and current neocolonialism of cultural tourism and commonwealth status in the Global South, Adele — as a self proclaimed ally — could have supported carnival dressed as herself with a sign that said “Claudia Jones”. She also could have donated to and hashtagged associated movements, causes and organizations that directly correlate with Afro-Caribbean populations within the UK.

To address supporters of the singer that asserted Adele as an “ally”: In wearing the Jamaican flag, she could have addressed the Supreme Court of Jamaica’s recent ruling against the right of a seven year Black girl to attend school wearing her hair how it grows out her scalp — the antiblack ruling politicized and demonized Black hair and locs.

Adele’s appropriation had nothing to do with Black people or appreciation of Black culture. Black people do not need to exist in terms of appropriating Blackness — we are collateral damage. The photograph was to be placed on her social media to go viral and spark a media blitz. Blackface in this case was used as an effort to be seen and assert position — as a “coming out”.

This blackface was for the mainstream — for white audiences.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi states that his former classmate Jessica Krug, “wore her blackfaces in order to pass in front of white gatekeepers at every stage in her academic career”. Like the music industry, in the academy, you do not need Black people to appropriate Blackness or to speak about Blackness and Black people theoretically or empirically.

Krug appropriated blackface through caricatured media depictions and resources acquired through decades of studying Black/African people and cultures vis-a-vis academia.

@Mukomawangugi — Twitter

Black people were collateral damage in the acquisition of blackface for the white mainstream academy. The academy supported her way to a tenured faculty position and notoriety as a “Black Latinx professor” while she played the part. Black women in particular were constantly gaslighted interpersonally and professionally by Krug and the institutions that supported her.

Krug reached the climax of her career mimicking an “unrepentant child of the hood”, and replicating a Black Latinx femme Bronx experience — she parasitically engineered by entering communities, studying mainstream media and pursuing decades of academic research.

So when we ask “why” the Adeles, Krugs, Dolezals, and CVs exist, please internet search “the history of blackface…”.

In understanding blackface, it becomes increasingly important for some Black people and non-Black people of color — accepting and sympathetic to these “off-stage” blackface portrayals — to decolonize their perspective and know that white supremacy, forced assimilation, colonialism, and colorism are interlaced into what we are made to believe when we encounter white people performing “blackness” on and off stage.

“Image of blackface minstrelsy performances by the St. Joe’s junior class of 1960 on page 99 of “The Greatonian” 1959 yearbook. PHOTO COURTESY OF SJU ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS”

The Girlfriends episode ends with Lynn’s sister Tanya begrudgingly posing as a white woman by donning her authentically white sister Hilary’s clothing.

The audience is to feel sympathetic for Tanya, for who “whiteness” is a foreign concept (what?). Additional sympathy is evoked for Tanya who did not understand the implications of her screaming out the N-word while singing a Jay-Z song in an earlier scene that caused friction with Lynn and new found friendship with Maya. This all happens at a Black salon while Tanya is getting her hair cornrow braided.

My indictment of the episode is not necessarily about the actors (this is still my favorite show), but more about the writing — the way the audience is tempered to feel and how they are to interpret Tanya’s blackface.

For 2002, the “Sister, Sistah” episode is both innovative and problematic.

The episode was innovative because it addressed a somewhat “new” infiltration of an old cultural phenomena — blackface/blackfishing as a practice of cis-heteronormative white women. And problematic because the audience is positioned to come away feeling accepting of the reasons why Lynn’s sister began and seemingly will continue to perform Blackness while being racist.

Shirley Temple in Blackface, from “The Littlest Rebel” (1935). — from “Remembering Shirley Temple requires us to remember her legacy of Blackface cinema”, http://reappropriate.co/2014/02/remembering-shirley-temple-requires-us-to-remember-her-perpetuation-of-blackface-cinema/

To understand why the Adeles, Krugs, Dolezals, CVs and “Tanyas” of the world exist, we have to engage with the deep cultural roots of blackface within white American culture. We must understand how these deep roots permeate in subtle, nuanced, and blatant ways particularly through assertions of white centering/visibility and power. Highlighting white centering and power allows us to process and demand what interpersonal and systemic reparations truly look like — particularly in the cases of Adele and Krug from the music industry and academia.

When we follow suit to center these occurrences within the framing of mental health needs, “cultural appreciation”, and even the notion that blackface is positive for “Black culture”, we dehistoricize the roots of blackface while accepting its dehumanizing claim that Black culture and the Black experience (in any form) can and will exist without Black people.

Photo of billboard exhibit in Detroit, MI by Alisha B. Wormsley of Pittsburgh — https://www.deadlinedetroit.com/articles/22831/new_downtown_detroit_billboard_reminds_black_people_they_belong

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Lisa Betty
Age of Awareness

Lisa Betty is a PhD Candidate in History and Course Instructor at Fordham University.