Racial Brownface
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Racial Brownface

Racial brownface is a variation of blackface in which a person imitates a person of Middle Eastern, North African, Maritime Southeast Asian, Latin-American, Melanesian, Micronesian, Polynesian, Native American, and/or South Asian ethnic origin. This can be done using makeup, hair-dye, and/or by wearing traditional ethnic clothing to make a person appear as though they belong to one of these "brown" ethnic groups. It is typically defined as a racist phenomenon, whether or not the offender intended to be racist.[1]

Brown voice

"Brown voice" is the use of stereotypical, often exaggerated, accents when portraying a character with a Latin American, Middle Eastern, Polynesian, Native American, or Indian background.[2] It is most commonly found in cartoons, but it can also be used in live-action television and film.[3] The Simpsons came under fire in 2018 after Hari Kondabolu released a documentary that criticized the show's character Apu, voiced by Hank Azaria. He addressed how several aspects of the character were racial stereotypes that are demeaning to the character as well as Indian immigrants in general. The character's thick Indian accent, voiced by a white male, and the fact that he works at a convenience store were the two main issues addressed by Kondabolu.[4]

Speedy Gonzalez is a Mexican mouse found in Looney Tunes and other cartoons related to the Looney Tunes brand. His first appearance was in 1953. Since then, there has been debate over the racial depiction of Speedy as he is dressed in a poncho, wears a sombrero, and speaks with a thick accent. He was originally voiced by a white actor. In recent years, he has been voiced by Hispanic actors and has been embraced by the Hispanic community as he is quite the opposite of most depictions of Mexicans: lazy and slow. He is embraced for breaking the racial stereotype, despite what the initial goal of the character's creation may have been.[5]

Historical and economic explanations

There are historical and economic factors that have contributed to the success and arrival of brownface and minstrel shows in the United States. Although it is impossible to say for sure why the phenomenon of brownface occurred, United States' immigration and foreign affairs have had an impact. Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 efforts to limit immigration and keep a sort of native purity within the United States has been common.[6] These sentiments to preserve native purity usually occur out of economic competition, seen most clearly in global wars. For example, after the First World War in 1919, the United States passed a series of immigration laws that helped to restrict immigration in order to keep the nation more isolated.[7] Actions such as these result in an increase of social racism when immigration clashes with nativist sentiments. Today, federal efforts to decrease immigration from Mexico have helped inadvertently to reinforce stereotypes about Mexicans as being lazy, criminal, and unwelcome. This is only one possible explanation as to why brownface and other racist phenomena have occurred throughout history and continue today. This and similar theories are debated and discussed to explain social events like brownface.

The Bracero Program of 1942 serves as another possible explanation for the emergence of brownface.[8] This program was an agreement between Mexico and the United States and allowed for Mexican agricultural workers to come to the United States for seasonal work. This enabled the United States' wartime labor needs to be met. It also gave Mexican workers struggling to find work job opportunities. However, the political sentiments of the war popularized nativism, as global wars often do. Popular opinion in the United States was generally that of preserving the sacred purity and success of democracy. Increased interaction between other nations was seen as jeopardizing to these ideals. The Bracero program let more Mexican laborers into the country, propelled the war effort, and fueled both the United States' and Mexico's economies. This social sentiment of nativism increased racism against these laborers. These laborers often overstayed their work visas as economic opportunities were better in the United States. As brownface saw its reemergence in the next decade with Bill Dana's minstrel character, Jose Jimenez, and the Bracero program, unintentionally worsened racism against Latin American people and other people of brown color. There are social, economic, political, and cultural factors that allow for all social phenomenon like brownface to occur.

Minstrel shows

Minstrel shows have been seen within the United States since the formal institution of slavery in the early 1800s.[9] They relied heavily on mocking the minority or the foreign, including race, class, and social standing. Their target audience was the white middle class, anyone who was seen as 'normal' or 'accepted,' and served mainly to reassure them about their own social standings and importance. Brownface, although always an element in these shows, became a much bigger part during the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a reappearance during the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. As economic and social factors during this time encouraged nativism and a shunning of the foreign, the increased immigration from Latin America and India led to the success of these types of shows. Immigrants and foreigners became increasingly unpopular and unwelcome, and entertainment and social norms based on degrading them became stronger. Brownface was used in these shows to reinforce stereotypes, portraying brown people as lazy, stubborn, and unable to assimilate into American life.

Jose Jimenez

José Jiménez was the character used by Bill Dana, an American comedian during the 1960s, to mock and humiliate Latino culture.[10] His appearance, and the increased prominence of brownface, can be credited to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during this time. As blackface and racism against African-Americans became increasingly unpopular, it can be explained that brownface and racism against other foreigners was the next go-to. José Jiménez was portrayed as a Hispanic man incapable of meeting 'American' traditions and values, struggling to learn English, and appearing lazy and untrustworthy. He was based heavily on racial stereotypes which also propelled his success during this decade.

There are several theories that aim to explain why characters like José Jiménez were so successful, even as current as 70 years ago. In the 400s BC, Plato theorized 3 main reasons why laughter occurs, or in other words, why certain things are perceived as humorous.[11] The success of Dana's character and most characters used in minstrel shows are results of the superiority theory. This theory explains that humor comes out of ridicule and degrading or mocking a certain idea or group of people. This type of humor serves to place an inferior object or person as the source of ridicule and laughter, allowing the superior audience to be entertained by it, as well as gaining a new sense of security in their superiority. This is most clearly the form of humor that minstrel shows and characters like José Jiménez stem from. There are two other theories. First, the incongruity theory, which explains how the putting together of two or more things to create a ridiculous scene creates laughter. This was also used in brownface minstrel shows when characters like Jimenez were put into over-sized clothing to make them look more childlike, thus equating them to inferior and less intelligent beings. The second is the relief theory, which also forms a large basis of the success of minstrel shows. This theory is founded on Plato's belief that when controversial topics like racism or sex are allowed to be joked about it takes some relief off of the social and political stress in daily life. Allowing these uncomfortable but present topics to be acknowledged in a humorous way, allows them to be more taboo in serious conversation, further entrapping them. While these three theories are commonly accepted, they are often debated and discussed. They do, however, offer some explanation on why minstrel shows gained so much success and popularity during times of social and political struggle.

Notable examples

Year Film Actor(s)
2021 The Family Man Season 2 Samantha Akkineni, a Telugu/Tamil actress from Kerala with fair skin, used extensive brownface to portray a person from Tamil Nadu a southern state in India
2019 Super 30 Hrithik Roshan, a Bollywood actor with fair skin, used brownface to portray a person from the eastern Indian state of Bihar.[12]
2019 Gully Boy Ranveer Singh, a prominent Bollywood actor, used brownface to portray a slum dweller in Mumbai in this Bollywood movie.[12]
2019 Bala Bhumi Pednekar, a naturally fair-skinned woman, applied dark makeup to play a dark-skinned character in this Bollywood movie.[13]
2019 N/A Tomi Lahren dressed up as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez for Halloween.[14]
2019 The Laundromat Meryl Streep playing Elena [15]
2014 Jonah from Tonga Chris Lilley as Jonah
2013 The Lone Ranger Johnny Depp playing Tonto[16]
2011 Day of the Falcon Mark Strong, a white English actor, and Antonio Banderas, a Spanish actor, play two warring Middle Eastern kings
2010 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Gemma Arterton playing Tamina[17][18][19][20]
2008 The Love Guru Mike Myers playing Pitka.[21]
2007 A Mighty Heart Angelina Jolie playing Mariane[22]
2001 Brotherhood of the Wolf Mark Dacascos playing Mani[22]
2001 N/A Justin Trudeau dressed as Aladdin at an Arabian Nights themed party.[23]
1997 The Lost World: Jurassic Park Harvey Jason as Ajay Sidhu
1997 Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery Will Ferrell as Mustafa[24]
1994 North Kathy Bates and Abe Vigoda play Inuit.
1988 Short Circuit 2 Fisher Stevens as Ben Jahrvi[notes 1][25]
1986 Aliens Jenette Goldstein plays Vasquez[26]
1986 Short Circuit Fisher Stevens as Ben Jabituya[notes 1][25]
1983 Scarface Al Pacino, American with Italian-American background as Cuban druglord Tony Montana[27]
1976 Feathered Serpent A number of white actors, including Patrick Troughton and Diane Keen play Indigenous American characters.
1969 Dark Shadows Characters of Magda Grayson Hall and Sandor Thayer David were portrayed as "gypsies" in brown face.
1968 The Royal Hunt of the Sun Christopher Plummer playing Atahualpa
1968 The Party Peter Sellers playing Hruindi V. Bakshi[28][29][30]
1961 West Side Story Natalie Wood playing Maria,[16] George Chakiris playing Bernado[31]
1960 The Millionairess Peter Sellers playing Doctor Kabir[32][33]
1952 Viva Zapata! Marlon Brando playing Emiliano Zapata[34]
1942-1947 The Thief of Bagdad, Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, Black Narcissus and other films of Korda brothers Most of actors and actresses on sets in Indian or Arabic roles, except for ethnic Indian Sabu
1934 Viva Villa! Fay Wray playing Teresa[22]
1932 Movie Crazy Constance Cummings's character, Mary Sears, plays a Hispanic woman[22]

Ben Kingsley in Gandhi

Ben Kingsley played Mahatma Gandhi in the 1982 film Gandhi. Although he is of Indian descent on his father's side, he is naturally fairly light-skinned. In order to appear more like Gandhi, Kingsley wore darker makeup. It has been suggested that he used brownface for the film in order to look more Indian than he is.[35]

The film is critically acclaimed and beloved, although as intolerance for racism and brownface increases, it has gained more attention and criticism for these reasons.

Paula Deen

In 2015, the American cooking television host Paula Deen posted a picture of her son in brownface to her Twitter account.[36] The picture showed her son dressed as Ricky Ricardo from the television show I Love Lucy, with the caption "Lucyyyyyyy! You got a lot of esplainin' to do!" Deen's picture received harsh backlash and sparked controversy as her son was pictured wearing a layer of dark makeup on his face and neck, in an effort to make him look like the Cuban character. She immediately removed the picture from her Twitter and other social media accounts, but still received criticism for uploading the image in the first place. Many believed that this was a clear case of brownface, though not meant to be racist or malicious. Her critics believed it showed ignorance on Deen's part and that attempting to change her son's skin color was unacceptable. This incident is an example of how brownface survives today. Although minstrel shows and clear acts of racism are uncommon, brownface is still shown in this way.

Rob Schneider

Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider, who has a Filipino grandmother, has been criticized for playing a Middle Eastern delivery man in Big Daddy, an Asian minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, an Asian waiter in Eight Crazy Nights, a Latino in The Waterboy, a native Hawaiian in 50 First Dates, a Palestinian cab driving terrorist in You Don't Mess With the Zohan and a Saudi Prince in Click.[37]

Current efforts to discourage brownface

In recent decades, there has been a push from Latin Americans to display their culture through entertainment.[38] This has resulted in more ethnically accurate portrayals of Latinos since Latinos are the ones creating and producing the work. Television shows like Master of None, discussed below, and others are helping to shatter racist stereotypes and other contributors to brownface and brown voice. Similarly, government efforts continue to push for racial equality through affirmative action programs. While brownface is a social phenomenon and therefore hard to combat, through efforts like these and an overall distaste for racism, these stereotypes may one day disappear.

Master of None

Aziz Ansari, an Indian American actor and director, along with Alan Yang, wrote and produced a television show called Master of None.[39] The show follows the life of Dev, a thirty-year-old American, played by Ansari, who strives to be an actor in New York City. The show focuses mainly on the struggles of this, as well as the comedic up and downs of life in New York City. Most importantly, however, it shows the struggles of being an Indian American in a predominately white society, even a city as diverse as New York City. Ansari elaborated in an interview that many of the incidents and situations that Dev faces were inspired by his own life in the United States. Master of None is worth mentioning because it is one of the first television series where Indian Americans are portrayed in a positive way, and where most of the cast is Indian. Indian Americans have typically been portrayed in media for comedic purposes, such as the character Apu in The Simpsons. Apu fulfills the offensive stereotype of an Indian American owning and running a convenience store and forcing his beliefs on those around him. Apu and other Indian characters in media act as comedic relief and to fulfill racial stereotypes. The episode of Master of None, "Indians on TV", specifically focused on white actors using make up to play dark-skinned characters.

See also


  1. ^ a b Character's last name was changed from Jabituya to Jahrvi for sequel.


  1. ^ Trammell, Kendall. "Brownface. Blackface. They're all offensive. And here's why". CNN. Retrieved .
  2. ^ Dave, Shilpa (2013). Indian Accents:Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
  3. ^ Davé, Shilpa (2013). Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.
  4. ^ "'The Simpsons' reportedly dropping Apu amid debate over character". NBC News. Retrieved .
  5. ^ VOXXI (2013-10-03). "Speedy Gonzales' Relationship With The Hispanic Community". Huffington Post. Retrieved .
  6. ^ Daniels, Roger (2004). Guarding the Golden Door. Hill and Wang. p. 19.
  7. ^ Daniels, Roger (2004). Guarding the Golden Door. Hill and Wang.
  8. ^ Park, James (1995). Latin American Underdevelopment. Louisiana State University Press. pp. 188-189.
  9. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth. Displacing Whiteness. Duke University Press. p. 312.
  10. ^ Perez, Raul. "Brownface Minstrelsy: Jose Jimenez, The Civil Rights Movement, and the Legacy of Racist Comedy". doi:10.1177/1468796814548233.
  11. ^ Lintott, Sheila. "Superiority in Humor Theory". Bucknell Digital Commons. Bucknell University. Retrieved 2019.
  12. ^ a b Sarkar, Monica. "Why does Bollywood use the offensive practice of brownface in movies?". CNN. Retrieved .
  13. ^ Sarkar, Monica (9 May 2020). "Why does Bollywood use the offensive practice of brownface in movies?". CNN. For example, the popular 2019 film 'Bala' featured the story of a woman who suffered discrimination on the basis of her skin tone. The woman was played by famed actress Bhumi Pednekar (pictured above), who had her skin darkened in order to play the role.
  14. ^ Walker, James (2019-11-01). "Tomi Lahren ridiculed over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Halloween costume: "I know this Is a costume because Tomi would never read philosophy"". Newsweek. Retrieved .
  15. ^ "Meryl Streep and Steven Soderbergh on the ending of 'The Laundromat' and that surprise dual role". Los Angeles Times. 2019-10-25. Retrieved .
  16. ^ a b Rodriguez, Jeremiah (2019-09-19). "What are blackface and brownface? CTVNews.ca's explainer". Federal Election 2019. Retrieved .
  17. ^ "Is Prince of Persia Really A Racial Whitewash?". Kotaku. Retrieved .
  18. ^ Armitage, Hugh (2018-09-08). "11 controversial castings that REALLY caused a stink". Digital Spy. Retrieved .
  19. ^ Allen, Nick (2010-05-28). "Hollywood accused of "whitewashing" over Prince of Persia film". Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved .
  20. ^ "Disney is allegedly darkening white actors' skin for 'Aladdin,' and it's not OK". Revelist.com. Retrieved .
  21. ^ "The Summer of Brownface". www.vulture.com. June 5, 2008. Retrieved .
  22. ^ a b c d "Brownface". TV Tropes. Retrieved .
  23. ^ "Justin Trudeau Wore Brownface at 2001 'Arabian Nights' Party While He Taught at a Private School". Time. Retrieved .
  24. ^ "How Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me became the best comedy sequel of all time". The Independent. 2019-08-01. Retrieved .
  25. ^ a b http://www.popflock.com/video?id=asOdBBNw-yE
  26. ^ http://www.popflock.com/video?id=nnmGkClOxTw
  27. ^ https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/a-tour-of-cinematic-blackface-brownface-and-yellow/#1983-trading-places
  28. ^ "Peter Sellers' The Party is the go-to movie for expressing anger over brownface: Is the ire warranted?- Entertainment News, Firstpost". Firstpost. 2019-05-09. Retrieved .
  29. ^ "The curious case of Hrundi V Bakshi: Deconstructing Peter Sellers' brownface act in The Party- Entertainment News, Firstpost". Firstpost. 2019-05-10. Retrieved .
  30. ^ "In 'The Party', Peter Sellers' Brownface Is the Elephant in the Room". PopMatters. 2014-10-27. Retrieved .
  31. ^ Moreno, Carolina (2018-01-26). "The 'West Side Story' Remake Already Seems More Authentic Than The Original". HuffPost. Retrieved .
  32. ^ "Birdy Num-Num: Peter Seller's Indian Characters". strands. Retrieved .
  33. ^ Corliss, Richard (2003-02-10). "Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved .
  34. ^ Tunzelmann, Alex von (2009-09-17). "Big hat, no cred: Viva Zapata! is a tale of Mexican freedom fighters that takes liberties with history". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved .
  35. ^ Frankenberg, Ruth (1997). Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  36. ^ Grinberg, Emanuella (July 7, 2015). "Paula Deen under fire for photo of son in brownface". CNN. Retrieved 2019.
  37. ^ Fallon, Kevin (2017-01-17). "Rob Schneider's History of Being Racist: From Brownface to His Civil Rights Tweet". Retrieved .
  38. ^ Aldama, Arturo J. (2012). Performing the US Latina and Latino Borderlands. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  39. ^ Subramanium, Sarmishta. "Enough already with the brownface". Ebsco. Maclean's. Retrieved 2019.

External links

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