Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Acting White: African Americans, Whiteface, and Post-Civil Rights Popular Culture
by Gates, Racquel, Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2010, 270; 3433575
Abstract (Summary)

Though a plethora of rich scholarship addresses the use of blackface by white and black performers on both stage and in film, very little work examines the African American utilization of whiteface. This project offers an analysis of this practice across a number of mainstream film and television examples from 1970 through 2004. It also explores instances where African Americans invoke aspects of Asian identity, and how these representations operate in relation to a black/white racial binary. Though strategies for performing whiteness have had a presence in African American cultural expression dating back to the early days of slavery, the unique convergence of social, political, and industrial forces that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to a profusion of explorations of racial identity in film and television unlike anything that had come before. These overlapping developments prompted vigorous new debates over what it meant to be "appropriately black" and how best to represent it in the media. The legacy of this time period continues to be seen in popular culture today.

This project takes a first step at filling in what I see as a significant gap in scholarship that addresses black representation in popular culture. It revisits and seriously engages with black popular texts that have often been dismissed by contemplating the relationship between the texts' political and performative dimensions. While the dissertation builds on existing media scholarship, it also proposes that an overlooked trait--what I refer to as a "politics of irreverence"--forms a connective thread between the whiteface examples that I take up in this project and a wider history of satire found in black folk culture. Over the course of the dissertation, I examine black horror films from the 1970s, black kung fu films from the same era, mainstream comedies from the 1980s and 1990s, sketch comedy television shows, children's cartoons, and hip hop music videos. By reframing these overlooked representations within a context of irreverence and engaging in close analysis, previously unnoticed subversive elements emerge, suggesting the immensely complex character of these seemingly simple texts.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Stewart, Jacqueline
Commitee: Johnson, E. Patrick, Sconce, Jeffrey, Spigel, Lynn
School: Northwestern University
Department: Screen Cultures
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 72/02, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African American Studies, Mass communications, Film studies
Keywords: African-American, Asian, Blaxploitation, Film, Popular culture, Television, Whiteface
Publication Number: 3433575
ISBN: 9781124393452
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