What the Ashton Kutcher Brownface Controversy Says About Race in America What the Ashton Kutcher Brownface Controversy Says About Race in America
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What the Ashton Kutcher Brownface Controversy Says About Race in America

by Cord Jefferson

May 5, 2012

Because we can't provide history and a deep network of professional advocacy organizations to South Asians overnight, Americans ourselves need to respond better to their community. This is not very hard to do. Firstly, we need to put South Asians in the same circle as blacks, Latinos, and East Asians when it comes to disparaging portrayals. Just as an advertiser would no longer put a white actor in brown face paint and a sombrero to howl drunkenly in a tequila commercial, we also shouldn't put white actors into brownface in order to sell potato chips. Simply because there's no history of South Asian minstrelsy in America doesn't mean an American is not continuing the minstrel tradition when they dance around in brownface saying stupid things in an Indian accent.

Secondly, and what's a much harder task, is that Americans need to understand that just because they're not offended by something doesn't mean that the said thing is acceptable. The racist Popchips commercial happened because rooms full of people who saw Kutcher in brownface were not offended by it, probably because there were not a lot of South Asians or other people of color in the decision-making process. Any time you are sitting with your colleagues or friends and trying to come up with an idea, if that idea, no matter what it is, involves a person dressing up as a person of a different race and affecting some ridiculous accent, that is probably a bad, racist idea, and you should move on. To be sure, there are cases when this is acceptable (see: Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downey, Jr. as a white man playing a black man was studied and interesting), but for the most part it is wrong through and through. It doesn't matter if you don't think it's hurtful.

Downey in Tropic Thunder is actually a good example of when it's alright to be offensive when playing a character. Undoubtedly, Downey in blackface ruffled some feathers, but if you asked the filmmakers why they were doing it, they had thoughtful answers. Downey said it was more a mockery of superserious actors than blacks. Esquire magazine agreed: "[Downey] plays a dead-serious Australian Method actor who insists on taking a role originally written for a black man, what ends up parodied is the self-seriousness of Method acting and the Vietnam-movie trope of the chitlins-chewing Negro grunt. Blackface isn’t the subject; it’s the vessel."

What Tropic Thunder did and what Popchips did look the same on paper: They both put white actors in paint to pretend they were people of color. But the reasoning behind each bout of minstrelsy was telling: Downey et al. did it to attack a well-known cliché and parody self-important artists, while Kutcher did it as a lark, to have fun in makeup while using a funny accent to sell chips. It's the difference between offensiveness as a tool to say something and offensiveness as a tool to have people laugh at the weird Indian in your snack commercial. One is a piece of art, one is Halloween; the latter is for children who don't know any better.

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What the Ashton Kutcher Brownface Controversy Says About Race in America