Ashton Kutcher, “Brown Face,” And Why These Images Persist in Media

May 7, 2012  |  

Thanks to the never forgetting archive of YouTube, you can now watch a number of banned cartoons from the golden era of overt racism in America. According to Wikipedia, the cartoons are part of The Censored Eleven, which is a group of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that depicted black people in an offensive manner.

One of my favorites is “Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs,” a tongue and cheek take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which features classic darkie minstrelsy by way of So White and Prince Chawmin, a big lipped, gold tooth, Cadillac driving, jive talking suitor. Despite the obvious Blackface, the cartoon was revered at its time for the incorporation of African-American-inspired jazz and swing music. Likewise, Bob Clampett, the creator of the cartoon short, has claimed that the cartoon was a homage to some jazz artists he once knew.  Some of the musicians were involved in the creation of the music and voices of the characters, even though they never received credit, and they concluded that there is nothing racist or disrespectful towards blacks in it. He attributes the controversy around his cartoon to a changing attitude towards black civil rights.

There is something to be said for how obtuse some folks are in regards to the idea that just because something is not offensive to you, that doesn’t mean that it is acceptable. Recently, Aston Kutcher, best known for punking celebs with stupid pranks and being the husband of Demi Moore, got in a little hot water for his eyebrow raising portrayal of an Indian. Kutcher appeared in an advert for Popchips where he donned ‘brown face’ makeup and put on a badly imitated accent (think Apoo from “The Simpsons”) to play a character named Raj, a 39-year-old Bollywood producer looking for love in a series of spoof dating videos.

Of course, the advert has drawn the ire of some in the Indian community, who deemed it racist. Others, like Anil Dash, didn’t call the company racist, but said they made a racist ad because, “they’re so steeped in our culture’s racism that they didn’t even realize they were doing it.”  In response, the advert has been dropped and Popchips CEO Keith Belling issued an apology, saying the following:

“Our team worked hard to create a light-hearted parody featuring a variety of characters that was meant to provide a few laughs. We did not intend to offend anyone. I take full responsibility and apologize to anyone we offended.”

Not sure what an Indian has to do with chips – in fact, I’m not even sure what Popchips are – but the fact that the Hollywood star saw fit to dress up in stereotypical garb and put on an Indian accent without even thinking, “Hmm, this might be a tad bit offensive” speaks volumes of how deep the pathology of stereotyping and “othering” goes.

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