As Virginia reels from the revelation that its political leadership is littered with white men who wore blackface in their youth, it’s worth remembering that several contemporary celebrities have done the same, part of a longstanding American tradition of white entertainers emulating blackness for their own amusement.
Comedians, even progressive ones who ally themselves with people of color, can’t mitigate the effect their racism has on the people whose existences they’re spoofing. And in the second full week of Black History Month, actor and comedian Nick Cannon reminded his Instagram followers that Sarah Silverman and the two Jimmys with late night shows—Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel—both wore blackface earlier in their careers. CNN has compiled a list of other contemporary entertainers who wore blackface, including Billy Crystal, Ted Danson, and Joni Mitchell. Fred Armisen famously darkened his face for years to play Barack Obama on “SNL.”
In May, Silverman apologized for a 2007 sketch in which she wore blackface on the Sarah Silverman Program. “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch,” she told the Hollywood Reporter in May. “I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on.” In the sketch, she plays a racist character who lacks self-awareness about her racism, saying, “I had no idea how cruel white people could be to us. I think I need to be with my own kind, now,” before entering a church full of black people.
Silverman said that even though she knew the sketch was wrong at the time, it didn’t harm her career at the time. “I was praised for it! It made me famous! It was like, I’m playing a character, and I know this is wrong, so I can say it. I’m clearly liberal,” she said. “That was such liberal-bubble stuff, where I actually thought it was dealing with racism by using racism. I don’t get joy in that anymore. It makes me feel yucky. All I can say is that I’m not that person anymore.”
In a 2000 episode of The Man Show, Kimmel appeared in blackface doing an extremely racist impersonation of NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone. Around that same time, Fallon impersonated Chris Rock on “Saturday Night Live,” wearing blackface and an afro wig. Neither Fallon nor Kimmel, who routinely mock politicians on their shows, have made fun of Virginia’s elected officials over blackface.
After Cannon called out the celebrities online, he reposted a photo of himself dressed as a white man. “TEACHABLE MOMENT: America, there is NO such thing as ‘WhiteFace,’” he wrote, “just like there is no such thing as ‘Reverse Racism.’”