Day 39: Tanning as the New Black Face?

Another admission: I watch Jersey Shore. Yes, that reality show full of problematic representations of Italians and of my now home state, New Jersey. Full of uncouth behavior and random brawls. And full of acronyms like GTL (gym, tan, and laundry).

Which brings me to the focus of this post. The characters on Jersey Shore can’t go long without visiting their local tanning salon to darken up. During their time in Italy, they are unable to keep up with the “T” in their GTL ritual and comment frequently that they are changing into colorless, pasty people. One of the first things they do when they return to the United States is go tanning. Pauly D, in fact, gets an especially intense tan and burns his face to the point of being unable to move his facial muscles. But, at least he is darker.

For people on Jersey Shore, tanning is about “representing.” As Pauly D explains, “I was born and raised a Guido. It’s just a lifestyle, it’s being Italian, it’s representing — family, friends, tanning, gel, everything.” Why tanning is part of representing Italian identity is very curious to me.

As I watch these folks religiously tan and make getting and staying darker such an important part of their existence, I can’t help but be reminded of black face images from stage and screen. Black face minstrelsy was a racist form of entertainment that became quite popular in the United States beginning after the Civil War and extending into the 20th century. In these shows, black characters were played by white actors “disguised” as blacks by blackening their face with the ash of burnt cork. Black figures in these shows were horrid stereotypes of black culture.

In 1986, when I was just starting high school, the comedy Soul Man was released. The movie is about Mark Watson, a socially and economically privileged white student (played by C. Thomas Howell) who is afraid that he will have to pay his way through law school. In order to appear to qualify for a scholarship for African-American students at Harvard Law School, he decides to take a larger than prescribed dose of tanning pills to appear black. Initially, Mark believes that black people have it made, but then, once he begins living as a black man, he finds that he is treated very differently than he was when he was seen as a white person. Along the way, he also ends up dating Sarah, a black female student who happens to be the other student who applied for the scholarship; she now waits tables to pay her way through Law School. Eventually, Mark is put in a position where he has to admit to his charade. He plans to pay back the scholarship money and to do charity work to make up for his wrongdoing, and Sarah decides to give him a second chance. Howell’s blackface performance was not well received generally and the NAACP protested the use of blackface in the film.

For the purposes of this post, Soul Man conveniently links tanning and racial appearance together. I wonder, in terms of tanning in the context of Jersey Shore, is there a way that “representing” Italian culture draws on what is perceived as cool and replicable about blackness? Or about other racial identities that could be referenced with a darker skin color — Indian, Native American, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern?

More to the point, according to this post (’s-1899-arizona-football-and-blackface-fans/), racial mockery through donning blackface is alive and well on college campuses across the country. Blackface in a “post-racial” America? These are the kinds of cultural moments, cultural performance, that notions of the “post-racial” potentially allow us to avoid discussing. Perhaps our students don’t see their actions in a context of racial stereotyping. But, not knowing does not mean that their actions don’t do the work of recalling racial stereotypes.

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