Hollywood’s Blackface Apology Tour Isn’t Very Convincing
Comedians like Tina Fey, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have issued apologies or erased episodes of their shows over blackface. It’s the barest minimum, writes Cassie da Costa.
I think about forgiveness a lot when the question of “celebrity cancel culture” comes up. When we call out entertainers like Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Tina Fey—who have recently had their forays into blackface comedy re-examined with calls for them to apologize, quit, and/or be fired—it’s clear that demanding their “cancellation” is a desperate last resort in a world where we know flaccid apologies will be issued and no restitution or reparation paid to Black, indigenous, and Asian performers who have been harmed by racism in the industry. What’s more, the casually toxic Western entertainment industry itself will remain intact as these wealthy, usually white performers cry crocodile tears via their iPhone’s Notes app or crisis-PR firms.
Rich and powerful white liberal and conservative entertainers alike tend to care more about optics than the systemic nature of harm. Neither party wants to be seen as villains, Karens, or Chads. The main difference is in how each party manipulates optics—the liberal ones tend to want to be seen as intrinsically good while the conservatives want to be seen as immutably right (the former will appeal to good intentions while the latter will evoke freedom of speech arguments). Former NBC talk show host Megyn Kelly’s tirade in defense of blackface on Halloween was a rallying call for petty white supremacist grievances, and it was only when her delusion of reason was shattered by dismayed colleagues and bosses that she was pushed to apologize before having her show cancelled. But NBC obviously didn’t care about systemic racism, since their network is a bastion of it; they cared about how it looked to have Kelly, a former Fox News pundit, tear her very flimsy mask off to reveal that she is, in fact, a bigot.
When Fey demanded that three episodes of 30 Rock featuring white performers in blackface be pulled off streaming and syndication and apologized for the episodes, she may at least have have been thinking about the Black viewers who would watch them, but what’s more likely is that she thought about the legacy those episodes would leave for her in a society that’s increasingly less tolerant of flippant, ironic racism, even when expressed by left-of-center folks. Again, Fey, whose 30 Rock aired for eight seasons on NBC, has first opted to remove the episodes from circulation, an easy way to gesture goodness—or virtue signal, to employ an over- and often-misused phrase—rather than take meaningful action against a racist industry.
Kimmel, who just released a PR-savvy yet spiritually incompetent apology for his years of blackface performance, has a reputation in the industry as the ultimate virtue signaler—he’s a kind of run-of-the-mill center-left patriotic liberal who believes his political commitments ought to shield him from the effects of his personal and professional conduct. His fake-apology begins with a defense, as all non-apologies do: “I have long been reluctant to address this,” he writes, since he didn’t want his admission of wrongdoing to be interpreted wrongly by his political and personal enemies. Yet, he never really admits wrongdoing in the letter, saying he never thought his blackface performance of Karl Malone “would be seen as anything other than an imitation of a fellow human being,” a statement completely unnecessary in an apology, as it only serves to absolve those who have committed harm of accountability. Hey, look, my intentions were pure, is the ultimate rallying cry of the emotionally immature, a way of dismissing or downplaying harm committed and retaining good optics.
Still, on the other side of an apology, no matter how butchered or non-existent, is the question of forgiveness. And this is usually the space where the idea of cancel culture materializes. Often, when we think about forgiveness, we think of a transaction: I’ll give you one forgiveness for one apology, or I’ll give you no forgiveness for endless apologies. In cancel culture the idea is that the harm committed is so great that there should be no path to forgiveness, and particularly, to the continued accumulation of wealth or benefit in the community or industry in which the harm was committed (in reality, it’s rare for a real cancellation to occur for the rich and famous; the rich, no matter how publicly reviled, tend to remain rich).
Yet, when we look at forgiveness as a practice, it only partly has to do with the party who committed the harm. Researchers on forgiveness like Robert Enright recognize that while deep injustice may feel impossible to forgive, holding onto resentment doesn’t protect or fortify us against further harm, either. In fact, it may kill us. And while forgiveness is often an external process—something extended to others—plenty of people, no matter their level of power or background, are not able to acknowledge the harm they have committed, apologize without excuse or qualification, and resolve to change their behavior going forward. As a result, forgiveness is not and cannot be transactional or purely external, but must instead function as a pathway to healing—if you can find a way to fully recognize the harm committed against you and work toward letting go of the painful feelings dredged up by that harm without enabling or absolving the other party of responsibility, then you’re a kind of Zen master, well-equipped to counter the evils of the world hurled at you from all directions.
And so critiquing and perhaps forgiving the Kimmels, Kellys, Feys, and Bill Mahers of the world is really about steadying our commitment to creating a culture based on accountability and care, not about waiting for all entertainers and executives to reach anti-racist enlightenment. Those performers and the industries that support them have to be invested in their own accountability for any change to occur on their end—and unless there is a radical toppling of cable networks and the white-owned entertainment industry at large, we better not hold our breaths. So-called cancel culture is a short-term, last-ditch strategy for those of us who want to make harmful systems work for us, who continually seek a response from an unlistening other. But just like putting the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in jail is not a solution to police brutality, and only serves to reify our systems of policing and imprisonment, neither is the initially satisfying yet ultimately meaningless cancelling of bad actors in the entertainment industry. It’s an understandable impulse, but the real work is in imagination. What would it look like to let go of Hollywood as we know it?