Whiteface (performance)

Whiteface is a type of performance in which a dark person uses makeup in order to appear white-skinned.[1] The term is a reversal of the form of performance known as blackface, in which makeup was used by a performer to make themselves look like a black person, usually to portray a stereotype. Whiteface performances originated in the 19th century, and today still occasionally appear in films. Modern usages of whiteface can be contrasted with blackface in contemporary art.



The earliest use of the term, noted by the Oxford English Dictionary, is from the New York Clipper in 1870, informing readers that William "Joe" Murphy has given up minstrelsy to "appear on the legitimate boards in white face."[2][3]

By 1908, actor Dooley Wilson had earned his nickname for his whiteface impersonation of an Irishman singing a song called "Mr. Dooley".[4]

The OED also lists a 1947 reference to the black actor Canada Lee performing the role of Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi in whiteface.[2]



Comparison to blackface


Blackface is widely considered racist due to its traceable racial links to slavery and racial segregation.[10] For this reason, blackface is heavily condemned in modern art forms, while whiteface is occasionally employed in modern times, usually in a comedic context. Those who defend it as art differentiate it from blackface, often arguing that whiteface does not draw on a legacy of racism in the way that blackface does, hence arguing that the intended satire of white lifestyles is not racist.[11]


  1. ^ Hilary Miller (24 March 2014). "Nick Cannon Wears Whiteface, Sparks Internet Debate". HuffPost. Retrieved 2020-06-21.
  2. ^ a b "white-face". The Oxford English Dictionary (3 ed.). 2015. sense 4.
  3. ^ "Negro Minstrelsy". New York Clipper. 16 April 1870.
  4. ^ Harmetz, Aljean (November 26, 1992). Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca—Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. New York: Hyperion. p. 143. ISBN 978-1562829414.
  5. ^ "Race Representations in Watermelon Man". Washington University. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  6. ^ Davies, Helen; Ilott, Sarah, eds. (27 July 2018). Comedy and the Politics of Representation: Mocking the Weak. Springer. p. 87. ISBN 9783319905068. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  7. ^ McFarland, Melanie (6 March 2006). "On TV: 'Black. White.' is uncomfortable, revealing reality TV". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 6 July 2015.
  8. ^ Lewis, Hilary (31 March 2014). "Nick Cannon on 'Whiteface' Controversy: 'I Was Doing a Character Impression; Blackface Is About Oppression' (Video)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 16 July 2021.
  9. ^ Weston, Christopher (2020-06-10). "Does White Chicks Have A Future On Netflix? Little Britain Removal Sparks Wider Debate On Race!". HITC.com.
  10. ^ Desmond-Harris, Jenée (October 29, 2014). "Don't get what's wrong with blackface? Here's why it's so offensive". Vox. Archived from the original on May 23, 2019. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  11. ^ Hannaham, James (28 June 2004). "Beyond the Pale". New York Magazine.

Further reading

  • Marvin McAllister, Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance, Univ of North Carolina Press, 2011, ISBN 0807869066