SNL, Barack Obama and blackface

March 1, 2008

When I read this Washington Post article, I was surprised to find out that Armisen is part Asian. I always thought he was Latino -- which he is, part. According to IMDB, he's of German, Japanese and Venezuelan ancestry.

On the surface, I see why people are making a stink. Blackface (or yellowface and any other face) is racist, oppressive, exploitative, and rooted in violence.

But does the fact that SNL seems to frequently cast people as different races and sexual orientations, and the fact that Armisen is also mixed race (though not black) like Obama, make any difference at all?

The Post writer points out this isn't the first time SNL has cast nonwhite actors to play blacks, or any other race. Or vice versa. For example, Amisen regularly plays Prince. Have people been upset about it in the past?

In fact, if you read Armisen's Wikipedia entry, it says he's plays all sorts of people -- a Jew, Iranian, black, Latino, gay, etc. -- and I'm sure the other cast members have a similar list.

In either case, what do you all think? Is this blackface and should people be offended? Are you offended?

I think it also gets to a deeper point, as a professor at USC points out in the article, of lack of black (and other people of color) representation in TV and media in general -- and the ability to so easily cast a nonwhite person as a person of color, versus the other way around:

"Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, says viewers might have a different reaction if the roles were reversed. What if, he says, 'SNL' had cast a black woman to portray Hillary Clinton? 'Do you think there's ever going to be a day when we start casting Queen Latifah to portray Princess Diana?' he asks. 'We just don't have the same representations going in other direction.'"

Apparently, SNL is going to continue using Armisen as Barack, including tonight's episode.


Momo Chang

Senior Contributing Editor

Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media, and freelances for magazines, online publications, and weeklies. Her writings focus on Asian American communities, communities of color, and youth culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Her stories range from uncovering working conditions in nail salons, to stories about “invisible minorities” like Tongan youth and Iu Mien farmers. She has freelances The New York Times, WIRED, and East Bay Express, among other publications.



I think this is fascinating because of Obama's mixed-race heritage. It seems that part of the reason Obama is so popular is because he is campaigning as a post-race president, so I feel he can be parodied in the same way.
I think that they need an actor that better captures BHO to play the role because Fred Armisen barely did it well enough to get by. If BHO's the nominee (or even President), I hope Armisen picks up his game or they'd better start looking.
SNL is showing its true racist colors. It has 1-2 black cast members yearly. Chris rock, the funniest guy on earth failed on SNL. Now, Tina Fey, in an apparent appeal to "fairness" is attacking Obama. This is not refreshing. Its the same old SNL racism. Screw SNL.
Given SNL's questionable history regarding minorities it's no surprise SNL writers have now created a SambObama character. Thankfully the show hasn't been culturally relevant since the 1970s.
This is why I love my cat. He is not racist like the writers' at SNL. But SNL has always made insensitive jokes about African Americans but it's just disgusting that they would pander to using black face to support Hillary Clinton. Really, there weren't any black actors that they could conjure up? Or is that because black people don't really watch the show and so Lorne Michaels can say whatever he wants without impunity? But which black actor is going to line up to play a token character?Besides saying the worse things about A.A, SNL has consistently used black face in its sketches (with Jesse Jackson, with Prince) to ridicule blacks. It may be that now people are just noticing now because the writers at SNL decided to be so low (or so bold) as to elaborate on Obama's mixed race as a packaged argument supporting Hillary Clinton.It's a disturbing mix of insensitivity and racism when someone swaps one biracial identity with another and slaps some black face on it as to assume that biracial people are similar. I can safely assume that SNL cruelly succeeded in offending many biracial and black people because they opted to describe Obama's race rather than represent it. In the world of SNL, Obama is neither black nor white but a mixture of unreal exoticism. Instead of seeing Obama as symbolically black (as many Americans do) or simply mixed race, SNL makes insulting conclusions.
OMG These Obamatoms are the craziest cult followers around. SNL mocks everybody on their show but when the Obamatons' cult leader appears it's racist???I was not offended and I'm Chicana. Pull that stick out of your butts Obamatons.
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i don't have anything to add, but i liked what genevieve. she points out the history of SNL but i do wonder why this conversation hasn't come up before. or has it?
I dont think this was blackface. When you talk about blackface, you have to re-live the AL JOSLON days when it was a true mockery of black people. Then again,, remember in the 80s when Eddie Murphy was SNLs premiere star, he white faced himself and played a caucasion guy. great stuff
Not such a good Obama. Not such a good idea to darken a white actor's face. It makes you wonder what they were thinking, but then again so do the last 10 years of SNL.I'm surprised, though, that the USC professor doesn't remember Dave Chappelle's Black Tony Blair!
You just got to laugh while reading some of the above comments, especially the ones from Mohit Kasibhatla (who somehow thinks Tina Fey is still the head writer on the show) or Genevieve (who thinks that SNL should hire new actors every week to match the races of the characters in the sketches). Please don't comment on the show unless you watch it regularly and understand what it is trying to do. Obviously, SNL should have a more diverse cast... but they make fun of everybody, not just Obama and African Americans. They do impressions, people -- lighten up.
this gets so tricky. armisen probably looks more like obama than say kenan thompson (SNL's only african american male cast member), but at the same time maya rudolph (who's black and caucasian) plays everyone from donatella versace to condoleeza rice without any criticism. so is it okay to go from black to white, but not vice versa?
To me, there's a different issue at hand: are African-Americans, because of slavery-history and such, an especially protected minority? A sacred cow?Is it okay that this sort of casting on SNL only raised alarm when it was Armisen playing a black guy?This is, in a way, related to the whole "the media only gets up in arms about an abducted girl when she's white, pretty, and middle class" thing. Why is there an exception? This sort of thing happens all the time... what's so special about THIS case?For better or for worse, we minorities need to get our shit together: either we want our race, ethnicity and culture to be acknowledged by others and respected... or we we want to be treated as if there was no "race." We need to choose. We can't have it both ways.
Is there any reason to suspect that Tina Fey "attacked" Barack Obama because he is black?
Todd Boyd is not paying attention to the fact that this guy's physical characteristica are not unlike Barack Obama's, while Queen Latifah's physical characteristics are nothing like Hillary Clintons. I don't think racial sameness is as important as physical similarily. You want someone who looks like the person they're depicting. Jennifer Beal plays white women all of the time, even though she's of African descent. Because she looks white!
It is obvious who the producers of SNL is pushing for. Dirty, poliitic playing Hilary Clinton
this guy is bad man. he's a bad actor.