Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #10: Sonic Black- and Brown- Face
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Dear Readers: Today’s Sound Off!//Comment Klatsch question comes to you from Seth Mulliken, SO! guest, frequent SOCK contributor, and Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State.
— J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Following a recent Huffington Post article concerning The Simpsons’ character Apu, why is it that sonic black- and brown-face doesn’t receive the same criticism as visual black- and brown-face?
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This is such a great question! I think Seth’s point about the different epistemologies we apply to visual knowledge and aural knowledges is important. Visuality is easier to put into propositional form, which can be assessed for truth content, but aural knowledge is mainly implicit and non-propositional, and it is harder to assess these for truth–and thus also for moral–content (because, for many philosophers the moral is also rational/true/etc.)
But I wonder too if we aren’t habituated to perform sonic black/brownface by listening to music? Does the racial performance just get subsumed in the other technical aspects of a vocal performance, like timbre, pitch, etc? Is it easier to conflate or overlook the racialization of something like timbre than it is to overlook the visual darkening of somebody’s skin?
This also makes me think about, say, Al Jurgenson’s (early, early Ministry) and Billy Joe Armstrong’s vocal Brit-face, their national/ethic-face performances of British accents. It’s not racialized in the same way as the Apu case, but maybe there’s something interesting in the contrast?
I’ll be back–gotta go teach!
Thanks for your comment.
I think you’re right that musical voices represent a wide array of examples of this phenomenon. We need only hear Elvis Presley’s vocal adoption of techniques from black gospel and blues.
But then, David Thomas: Thomas is the lead singer of the punk/post-punk band Pere Ubu. Being aware of the ways that white folks have vocally stolen, without credit, the techniques of black musicians, Thomas decided he wouldn’t do it. He says that he purposely avoided doing things vocally that were attributed to black music. He didn’t do any melisma, etc.
What about KRS-One, who would occasionally adopt a Caribbean/West Indian patois, as in Sound of da Police.
KRS-One’s use of voice could suggest something else: a creation of community through language. Maybe?
As an Indian American born in the 80’s I grew up feeling a lot of hatred for Apu, not even knowing he was voiced by Hank Azaria. As a fan of the Simpsons though, I grew to love the character. Everyone on the simpsons is crazy and Apu turned out to be one of the more normal ones. Over the years, Apu became much more of a 3-dimensional character who’s voice was outlandish but it wasn’t the butt of the joke unlike his fellow immigrants like Bee Man and Groundskeeper Willy who took much longer to develop. I guess the sonic brown face didn’t bother me as much because the character eventually had depth (he had whole episodes about him finding his love, getting married, having kids, etc) and his storylines didn’t revolve only around his thick indian accent.
Visual brownface is much more offensive to me. When you see that, it’s always a sign that the joke will never develop beyond the thick, inaccurate accent or a silly stereotype. I already know the joke is flat and its an excuse to just portray many ridiculous indian stereotypes all at once. When you see it visually too, it just makes you wonder how they got so far in the process. Someone literally had to paste brown shoe polish on “Ben” from Short Circuit for every scene. Same thing with Ashton Kutcher when he put on brownface for that popchips commercial. It was offensive to me, because it’s like, How did you actually think this was a good idea? Why hasn’t anyone from the film crew or makeup department make you realize that this isn’t appropriate? For those who haven’t seen the commercial, it’s basically Ashton Kutcher in brownface talking in an indian accent about his love for Snooki. (Apparently the budget was spent on the shoe polish instead of researching indian stereotypes, because I don’t know any indians/Snooki connection is)
Where is the emphasis in this question? Is the issue: why is brown-face ignored in some contexts but not others? Or is it: why is sound ignorned in this particular context?
The points in the article with Hank Azaria were really interesting, because he attested to doing character
research and becoming attached to the character he was playing. At the same time, it’s somewhat unsettling how uncritical he is about the privilege he has in taking that role.
I wonder what types of identification occur along with learning and personating a voice that is clearly other?
Aaron, my thinking is that both of those inquiries exist under the question: why is it that a specific mode of occupying the black/brown body exists without critique, and further why is it a sonic mode? I’m particularly interested in if those two questions intersect at any point.
Tentatively, I think there is a connection. As many folks have written about, sound tends to be thought of as emotional, sensual, as opposed to the visual sense of truth and verification. So does sound become an “innocent” carrier of information? Is sound a “safe harbor” for racism, like Apu, to exist?
…as far as Hank Azara goes, his claim of “research” is a bit specious. Its true that the name Apu is conscious reference to the character from S. Ray’s films; Simpson creator Matt Groening has said as much. This might imply an attempt to create a cultural context for the character, making him more than a minstrel show.
But throughout the series, Apu has been referred to as a few different ethnicities: Punjabi, Begali, and a few others. And one of Azaria’s reference points is the 1960’s film “The Party,” where Peter Sellers plays an Indian man in brown make-up and an Apu-esque accent. This would seem to suggest that Azaria’s “responsible” work is moot.
Is there a way for a white person to give voice to a racial other, if they provide a cultural/critical context? Is every vocal performance by a white person of a non-white person a form of black/brown -face?
…and, of course, huge debt to reina alejandra prado saldivar, and her excellent article right here on Sounding Out!
Hi folks. Welcome to todays Comment Klatsch. This is a question that come to my mind after seeing the Huffington Post article here:
My first thought was that Apu is just one of many, many characters that perpetuate in movies and TV that should be considered a form of “sonic black/brown-face.”
This post is also inspired by stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu, who has spoken about Apu often. Here is a link to a report that he gave on “Totally Biased” with W. Kamau Bell.
What do you think about this? Why is this phenomenon “allowed”? How far does it go?
…as another example, one that I think is deeply unsettling, and representative of a number of other examples, is this clip from Family Guy.
in this clip (from a TV show I despise with all my being), two characters sit on a beach at sunset to witness what they refer to as “the screaming black dolphins.” They use those words to describe it, and the punchline is that these talking dolphins appear out of water.
Unlike Apu, there is no visualized racialized body, cartoon or otherwise, rather an entirely sonic black-face.