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Of course he used a prescription drug and an ultraviolet light to darken his skin, so it’s not technically blackface and the project did a great deal to make white Americans open their eyes to the uncomfortable truth. Thinking about events in Virginia, I have to wonder: is it the blackface or the intent? Does it matter if the intent is humor or enlightenment and are those mutually exclusive? Are we adult enough, brave enough to ask questions like that?
When Eddie Murphy performed a Saturday Night Live skit called “White Like Me” in 1984, it seemed to be informed by the movie of 20 years earlier, With Murphy made up, somewhat convincingly, as a white man — but things had changed. It was mockery not didactic revelation. I have to admit I thought it funny then, but looking at it today, the gross mockery of white people, the fantasy about whites not having to pay anything for anything, being served Champagne on the bus, getting bank loans without collateral while sailing care-free and prosperous through life appealed to our hip self-image as enlightened young people.
I don’t think it’s aged well. I laughed at the mockery of the way white people walk, talk and behave, because you know, comedic truth is a kind of truth and really we white people are all so guilty for being born in a former European colony.
Again it seems mean rather than humorous now, just as his “Raw” routine about AIDS and homosexuals seems inappropriate today. I didn’t think as much about the struggles of most Americans trying to get ahead with the country turning conservative again. Perhaps the picture of a white man’s secret paradise hasn’t stood the test of time.
Thirty-five years past that point today, I no longer know what to think. Eddie seems offensive and racist to me now but perhaps less so to others. We’re all so much more sensitive, more prone to see things without humor, more prone to seeing society’s inequities and hypocrisies as intrinsic and absolute properties of race rather than historical circumstance — and less willing to see the other guys perspective. So if someone thought it was funny to pretend to be a famous and admired black musician in 1984, racist intent is assumed.
Perhaps if a white man played Othello we also wouldn’t look for motive but issue irrevocable condemnation. It’s different if a black person plays Alexander Hamilton I guess, but Is that objectivity or the lack thereof? The reasons for all this are beyond my patience and willingness to discuss, but we are evolving somehow and yet we’re refusing to talk about it. Many are stuck in the binary “four legs good, Two legs bad” morality mode which relieves us of painful thought or introspection or fights with the agencies of righteousness.
At my age, I feel like Moses on Mt. Nebo knowing I won’t see any of this resolved and the view of the promised land remains shrouded in clouds of uncertainty, but it does seem that animosity increases and mutual respect and tolerance are still riding in the back of the bus, avoiding eye contact. I’m not Moses nor was I meant to be. I’m not even a wise man, but just an old one tired of mankind destroying himself in seeking vengeance for ancient and ancestral offenses. Can’t we just get along?