The problem with impersonating Jay-Z in blackface

May 01 2013 Published by under Asian Americanism

I've shared my thoughts on yellowface here on this blog before, so you'll probably have an idea of the level of my disappointment after watching this video of 4 Asian frat bros clowning out to Justin Timberlake's "Suit and Tie."

As reported in the OC Weekly:

The video was created as promotion for the fraternity's annual "installs" event, which celebrates the entrance of new brothers. It was posted on YouTube with the disclaimer: "No racism intended. All fun and laughter."

Yup, that's an Asian dude in blackface impersonating Jay-Z at around 0:54. Also, smart move attaching your names (if, in fact, those are your real names) to this "project." Good luck with that.

asian in blackface

Let's break this video down. If you're Asian and you want to portray JT, then no whiteface, no wig, nor any attempts at signaling "whiteness" to the viewer is required. Putting on a suit and tie and lip syncing the hook is enough. Impersonating Jay-Z, however, is a different story. You'd think dropping a line or two from Hova's verse would do the trick. Nope. Clearly, the answer is blackface. The result? JT gets to be identified as being a singer. Jay-Z, on the other hand, isn't afforded the same artist status. You see, the problem here with relying on blackface--aside from being overtly offensive-- is that it doesn't give Jay-Z his due as a rapper but instead, defines him first and foremost as being black.

jayz and jt

Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z at the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles on February 10th, 2013. Lester Cohen/WireImage

[h/t] OC Weekly



6 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    While I can agree that this video may in fact be racist, I'm more interested in when something like this (not this exactly, but still with "race-face") wouldn't be racist.

    Are you a proponent of a hard line rule that no person should wear any kind of face ever? For that matter, no culture should ever wear another culture's clothing (the article cited references Asians wearing ponchos and sombreros as a racist example)?

    If not, then how can we judge if wearing race-face is offensive or not? I understand if you don't have an answer to this question, but it is the ultimate question in my mind. It's easy to say things are offensive/racist. It's harder to figure out when they aren't.

    Some examples of race face that I don't see as racist are:
    Eddie Murphy in Coming to America - White Face (

    Eddie Murphy in Norbit - Yellow Face (

    Jon Hamm on 30 Rock with Tracy Morgan - Black Face (

    I understand that more than a few people would find the above references as racist, but that doesn't mean they are racist just because some people think they are. It just means that some people take issue with some things that others might not. Where is the line if there is one?

    This seems similar to when the Supreme Court attempted to review whether a movie was pornographic or not:

    "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
    —Justice Potter Stewart

    Can we just not know the line unless/until we see it? I can't really abide by the philosophy that, if it's race-face then it is automatically racist. Nor can I abide by the idea that if someone finds something offensive, then it is solidly off limits. But the problem remains of figuring it out. When is it ok/not ok and is it uniformly offensive if people can't agree on how offensive it is?

    • Marc says:

      Hi Anonymous,

      While the questions you raise are tough ones (perhaps unanswerable) and relevant, I think you may be missing the point of the post.

      It seems to me that the use of blackface here and the lack of white face to represent JT highlights a universal perception that there is a default image of "white" in many minds.

      The people in the video didn't feel like they needed to show JT by using whiteface because there is an assumed whiteness even though they are Asian. More problematic would be the brainwashing that these young men have about consciously or subconsciously identifying easier as white and therefore not seeing a need to show JT. In contrast, by having a "white by default" attitude, their interpretation of portraying Jay-Z missed the mark significantly.

    • AmasianV says:

      Dude. This again? Stop hijacking my blog. No, I'm not a proponent of a hard line. I'm not a fan of Eddie Murphy using whiteface in Coming to America or yellowface in Norbitt--mainly because I didn't find it funny and thought it was pointless. I thought it was a "good" use, however, in his SNL skit, because there was commentary in it mainly pointing to white privilege as I think there is commentary in the 30 Rock skit as well.

      "no culture should ever wear another culture's clothing "
      There's a difference between wearing another culture's clothing and appropriating it for mockery sake.

      "It's easy to say things are offensive/racist."

      Let me elaborate if it's not clear in my post. While, yes, I am outraged that they used blackface I was also trying to provide what else I thought was problematic about it's use. By using blackface it obscures what I think is Jay-Z's more relevant identity as a rapper and artist in the video over his race (granted the first two lines from his verse are heavy with race "All black at the white shows. White shoes at the black shows"). Contrast that with how JT is "portrayed."

  • White people invented BF for the sole purpose of demonizing African people. BF has racist origins. Yellow face and Red face were also invented by whites to smear those groups as well, therefore when whites do 'face', it conjures up memories of the original intent. Whites in BF is ALWAYS racist. However, if an Asian does BF or a Black person does yellow face, it is not necessarily a slight, Asians and Blacks have no historical beef, so if we want to wear the others face to pay homage, that is a horse of a different color, the frat guys should be given a pass.

    • AmasianV says:

      1. My issue is independent of whether or not there is a "historical beef." Again, it's overlooking Jay-Z's identity as a rapper and portraying him only by his most obvious feature: skin color. Contrast that to the frat bro's portrayal of whiteface required.

      2. To say there is no historical beef between Asians and blacks is to ignore racial tensions that DO exist between Asian and black communities in America.

      3. I don't think the frat bro's were paying "homage." If they were, then they'd at least lip sync some of Jay-Z's lyrics...but that's my reading of it.

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