McWhorter comes back strongly

October 16, 2021 • 11:00 am

The other day I was worried about John McWhorter being “defanged” since he started writing a twice-weekly column for the New York Times. After all, his views on race are pretty much opposed to those of his hosting newspaper, and although the NYT has to allow a few conservative columnists to expatiate, for it would look unseemly without a few pieces by Ross Douthat or Bret Stephens, it has now a liberal but contrarian black man writing op-eds, which wouldn’t be tolerated if a white writer produced them. All the other black columnists adhere to the party line.

So, I wondered, would the NYT either mute McWhorter’s views on race, or would he tone himself down to appeal to the paper’s readership? Knowing about McWhorter, I thought the latter unlikely, but still wondered if he had lost his steam since his wonderful column on the Great Wisconsin Rock Fiasco.

Well, I needn’t have worried. He’s back again criticizing what is at least partly another act of performative outrage. Click on the screenshot to read:

I wrote briefly about the Bright Sheng “blackface” scandal a week ago in the Hili dialogue news, saying this:

A blackface incident has occurred at the University of Michigan, involving, Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition and a well known composer and pianist. But he happened to show the wrong film. As the student paper, the Michigan Daily, reports:

On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface.

“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

The predictable outcry occurred, with claims that the film made the students feel unsafe. This resulted in Sheng’s removal as a teacher of undergraduates. He apologized to the faculty and students, but his apology was considered insufficient. Sheng says that he didn’t realize the cultural offense conveyed by blackface.  As the Dean of Sheng’s division revealed in an email, “the incident had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.”  Sheng will be lucky if he’s not fired for showing that movie.

As McWhorter points out, the best explication and analysis of this incident is by Cathy Young at Arc Digital, who concludes that Sheng’s screening of the movie induced “moral panic” and a “witchhunt,” with Sheng being the witch.

McWhorter takes a different tack, noting that blackface movies, like “The Jazz Singer”, were just as reprehensible a few decades ago, but didn’t cause moral panic. If you were enlightened you would criticize them, and black people disdained or sometimes even found them amusingly exaggerated, but the full-on moral panic we see at Michigan didn’t ensue. What’s the difference?

And here’s McWhorter’s question (in the late 1990s he had shown his own students a movie with blackface scenes, noting beforehand that the practice was now seen a racist, and nobody “batted an eye”); emphasis is his:

So, here’s our query: Is the response of Sheng’s students an advance on those of my students a generation ago? Were me and my students missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened?

And a few ancillary points:

Before we tackle that, there are two important points to address. First, as Young notes, Olivier’s performance does involve a degree of cartoonish swagger beyond what some blackface performances of the era entailed. But it’s reasonable to assume that Sheng’s students would have had a similar response to more restrained blackface portrayals of Othello, such as Orson Welles’s.

Second, Sheng should indeed have made clear that he was about to show his students something that would require them to put on their “history glasses,” as I sometimes put it. But the question involves degree: Should he now be barred from the class amid rhetoric that makes him sound like a pitiless bigot, unfit and out of step with an enlightened society? I’d say no.

I agree. Sheng was treated badly by the students and administration given he was showing the film as part of a lesson on Shakespeare and its adaptations.

He goes on:

Now: Let’s break down what the crux of objections to showing a blackface performance ever at all are.

I won’t quote the possible objections at length, but summarize them with short excerpts. The first is that minstrel shows are and were disgusting. But, in response, the times have changed for the better, and nobody puts them on any more. As McWhorter says, that aspect of Sheng’s incident makes the student outrage performative:

But is there no statute of limitations on how long a people will feel actual injury about such a thing? In 2021, there is barely a person alive who attended a minstrel show performed as mainstream, professional entertainment. Even those who may have caught ragtag amateur groups keeping the tradition alive are likely now quite elderly.

The idea seems to be that we (relatively) younger Black people and our non-Black fellow travelers are nevertheless so viscerally stung by seeing any manifestation of this bygone tradition that to show dated footage of a white British actor in blackface, as part of an academic colloquy, qualifies as a grievous insult. But I like to think of Black Americans as a people of pride and forward thinking. I miss those qualities in this submission to an insult leveled by perpetrators now very, very dead. And since no one can seriously argue that Sheng’s intent was to revive or exalt the practice of blackface — and not to teach something about the operatic adaptation of a seminal literary work — to treat him as an accessory to those dead perpetrators seems more a kind of performance in itself than a spontaneously felt insult.

Now I don’t doubt that some students really do feel outrage at this (though some surely are dissimulating as a way to gain power and attention), for the angry students might have simply internalized the idea that blackface should cause anger, causing a reflexive response that hasn’t gone though the same kind of consideration that McWhorter gives.

He also raises the possibility that imitating a black person by darkening your skin is inherently ridiculing black people: a racist act.  McWhorter rejects that as a generalization, arguing that sometimes it’s done, as in “30 Rock” to make fun of racism. As he says, context matters—just like context matters about how bad it is to use the “n word”. Remember that the NYT fired Don McNeil for uttering the word in a didactic and nonracist context, but it didn’t matter. Here McWhorter is saying that, unlike NYT editor Dean Baquet, who fired McNeil, context DOES matter.

In other cases, like Sheng’s, blackface is used didactically, like McNeil’s “n word”, and punishment isn’t warranted. (The NYT acted reprehensibly in the McNeil case.)

McWhorter winds up arguing that the proposition that blackface is always bad enough to constitute a firing offense is not just antiracist, but radical, even to antiracists, for it requires going beyond what we normally think is bad behavior into realms of the Inquisition:

These are my own observations. They are up for debate. But those condemning Sheng seem to consider their ideas not just opinions, but truths — the predicate for an inquisition. Yet, the view that blackface makeup is so uniquely revolting that a professor should be hounded from his class for showing, in a scholarly setting, decades-old scenes of an actor wearing it is a point that many find extreme. It is a position that requires some serious lifting and a vast transformation in common modes of thought, even among people with good-faith concerns about race relations, and would look odd to time travelers from just a few decades ago. A position like that is not simply “antiracist,” but radical.

This radical proposition, like so many on race of late, is being put forth as if it were scripture that no moral actor could question. It misses the point, then, to dismiss the students as fragile. Their claim entails that people were injured by such usages of blackface before, therefore must still be now, and that we should redefine the bounds of permissibility to bar such images from general experience. They think their recoil from the very sight of decades-old racist imagery is uniquely enlightened, a resistance to abuse endemic to our society’s past, present and future. To them, their response isn’t only appropriate, it’s mandatory.

But that’s a proposition they must assert in the public square and assume as subject to discussion and dissent.

And that is the main problem with Wokeism. Not its tenets or its general motivation, which are congenial to liberals, but its dogmatism—its strong claims that some behaviors and some words are unquestionably racist or politically offensive and damning the people who produce them is the only just outcome. It’s the claim that “intent doesn’t matter, only reaction”.

McWhorter supposes that the radical proposition would be rejected by the public, largely seen as “virtue signaling,” but he’s still willing to hear the showing-any-blackface-is-bad adherents make a coherent case for their uniform opposition to showing such movies, as well as for Sheng’s being booted from his class:

Or just maybe, the people who witch-hunted Sheng could defend their position better than I am imagining. I’d be happy to observe the attempt. But from where I sit, we’re seeing a radical agenda not proposed, but imposed. Upon what authority are they allowed such primacy of influence in how we speak, think and teach in our times?

Yes, McWhorter is back speaking truth to liberal media and liberals in general. I was wrong to even suppose that he’d back off on his contrarianism. The only question is whether the NYT will let him continue to say things like this. I hope so. Without such voices, society will go insane.

89 thoughts on “McWhorter comes back strongly

  1. McWhorter writes about many different things, and always has. When he writes about language change or some aspect of the history of music he isn’t “hard-hitting” because he’s just making observations about some features of those domains. It is his equivalent of having posts about cats. I see no evidence that the NY Times is trying to muzzle him.

    1. I didn’t adduce any evidence either, I just said I was worried because he hadn’t reprised the tone of his earlier column on U. Wisconsin. I’m allowed to be concerned and, as I said in this piece, I shouldn’t have been, but I’m apparently criticized for having my initial worries.

      1. You aren’t being criticized. At least not by me. I’m simply trying to add context by referring to the nature of his prior work, including books like Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (a delight to read) that are far from the “hard hitting” playing field. His non-hard-hitting pieces in the NYT are completely within his normal range.

  2. The most privileged students these days, the very top of the hierarchy in US universities, are the black students. Nobody dare contradict them on anything and nobody dare say “boo” to them. And, as with any children whose parents just indulge them, they’re behaving like spoilt brats. It’s purely a power play; they have the power to act like brats so they do. So they ask for a rock to be moved at considerable expense, just to flaunt the fact that they have the power to get it moved. Or, as at Yale Law School, they police other students’ words and deeds, just to demonstrate that they’re the Top Dogs on campus.

    And no, they’re not actually harmed or upset at things like Olivier in blackface, it’s a performance, they’re reacting like a mafia boss to a minion not being sufficiently deferential to his Top Dog status.

    1. PS, I probably should have said that about *some* black students, the activist ones who spend their lives scheming up complaints. I’m sure they are a minority and that most black students are not like that.

      1. You have summed it up perfectly. The same also applies to trans and other identitarian activist groups. Many use this power to behave egregiously, doing and saying things that would result in expulsion, castigation or arrest for their oponents. Yet they get off scot free. It’s no wonder they continue to behave like spoilt, often spiteful, brats.

  3. I was starting to get the impression McWhorter may have been going softer in the NYT too.

    In fact even the start of his blackface scandal piece had me feeling this. But in fact he came at it with a nuanced take, and ended strong, IMO.

  4. If a role (such as Othello) absolutely requires dark skin, and if there is no dark-skinned actor available, personally I’d rather see a white actor in blackface than a person of color with poor acting skills.
    Given that minstrel shows in which blackface was used to ridicule black people are past, I think that the outrage about blackface is indeed moral panic, and I hope that the American woke won’t succeed in imposing their religious zealotry on other countries that have no history of minstrel shows.

    1. I feel the same as regards Verdi’s “Otello”; if there was no good dark-skinned dramatic tenor available (and they are hard to come by in any skin tone), I’d rather watch and listen to a good performance by good white tenor, than listen to a sub-par performance by a person of color. I don’t know how opera companies will handle this issue, but it will depend on when and where, I think.

      1. I’m glad you mentioned Verdi’s opera Otello. (Rossini wrote one, too.) Placido Domingo made a career of playing Otello in blackface. In fact, I would argue that in his heyday, Domingo owned the role. There is a long tradition of skin darkening make-up in theater and opera, but perhaps, as a fellow commenter suggested elsewhere, we can dispense with that now. I’m also thinking of Eric Owens, who practically owns the role of Wotan in Wagner’s Ring Cycle these days. Mutatis mutandis, should Owens be in whiteface when he’s in the role? (JK)

        1. Otello’s one of my very favorite operas. I think I saw it for the first time in the Doges Palace in Venice (an incredible experience), with Mario del Monaco, who must have been in blackface. I have seen a recent version from the Met with a black singer. Must look up his name. It’s Russel Thomas. Not my favorite but not bad. Eric Owens is fantastic!

    2. It seems pretty clear to me that the “shock” over Olivier playing Othello is a kind of category error. That part and that actor are far, far apart from hammy actors in an old time minstrel show. There really is little to compare the two.

    3. They could just cast the best actor and, should they happen to be white, have them play Othello (or whatever) without blackface, but somehow that kind of colour-blind casting is probably not on the agenda.

      1. One important ingredient in the play is that Othello is black. Whatever you think of the play, having Othello not be black is a non-starter.

        Shakespeare’s plays were performed in then-modern dress in his day, That is not the same as Elizabethan today, nor modern today, nor historical today (which wasn’t done in Shakespeare’s time). I prefer Elizabethan for the same reason I prefer HIP Baroque music (Historically Informed Performance, i,e. original instruments and tuning etc.), but historical is OK. I don’t have a problem with women playing women’s roles (which wasn’t the case in Shakespeare’s time). For those wo set Hamlet in the 19th century, or have the characters ride bikes, or whatever, not my cup of tea, but if you are doing that, then the race of the actors is just another liberty, especially because that is perceived other than it was perceived then. But one can’t leave out essential parts of the play.

          1. Good point, no blackface, but brownface from now on.
            After all, most actors, if not all, put some make up under the spotlight, there is a spectrum here. 😁

        1. What is important is that Othello is visibly different to everybody else and (is in the context of the play) from a group that people think of as inferior in some way. It’s central to the plot that Othello’s relationship with Desdemona is somehow beyond the pale because of who he is.

          You could write something like Othello using practically any divisive characteristic of groups of humans. Obviously, Shakespeare chose race but, if you have no black actor available, I’m sure a creative director could find a way to mark out a white actor as a Moor without them having to don black make-up.

      2. During lockdown, the BBC’s ‘Culture in Quarantine’ included ‘Hamlet’ performed by a largely Black cast, with the magnificent Paapa Essiedu in the title role. (As far as I can recall, the main white characters were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played as two hapless twits).

        It worked; and the actors’ colour rapidly became just irrelevant. So why shouldn’t Othello be portrayed by a white actor (or indeed actress: that would be interesting)? Shakespeare is regarded as ‘universal’ for a reason.

      3. I think it depends on the setting and the context.
        I liked the color-blind cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. But if I am watching an educational film about the New Tastement or early Christianity, with scenes from the Gospels, I’d wish Jesus and his following to be played by Sepharadi Jews or, as a last resort, Arabs.
        The same way, I gasped when a supposedly educational movie about the Iliad had Achilles played by a black actor, and Zeus by another black actor with Egyptian attributes. But if an ordinary theater employing black actors stages a play about the Trojan War, there is no reason to restrict them to the roles of Memnon and his Ethiopians.
        “Othello”, however, is a special case. As Jeremy Pereira noted, Othello is non-white among whites who consider him inferior because of his race. He a tragic figure exactly because he is inherently noble but the long-term exposure to racism erodes his integrity and enables him to be driven to a heinous crime. So I think that in this particular play, impression of skin color matters. If it is staged by non-white actors, the protagonist could stay as he is, and the others could put on “whiteface”.

  5. “Now I don’t doubt that some students really do feel outrage at this …”

    I wonder. Surely all black college students know that blackface has been used in the past. It can’t possibly be a shock. They also know that Sheng’s intention wasn’t to promote blackface or racism in general. I think we give these outrage artists way too much leeway.

  6. “Were me and my students missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened?”
    This is what jumped out at me. McWhorter, a linguist, saying “ME and my students” as the subject of his sentence. Otherwise, I agree with McWhorter whole-heartedly.

      1. Probably, but “Me and so-and- so” as a subject still bugs me for two reasons: putting oneself first + using me as a subject. Get off my lawn🤓

      2. Sorry … that’s just crappy English. I’ll give him the odd split infinitive and and preposition at the end of a sentence.

        Was me [I] missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened? Even with “I”, the sentence is stilted.

        1. … that’s just crappy English.

          To a prescriptivist perhaps; otherwise it’s de gustibus non est disputandum.

        2. I understand but why does English need two words to refer to me, myself, and I. (Ok, I guess there are more than two.) They ought to be interchangeable. Words have definitional nuances but this distinction serves no purpose that I can detect.

          1. but this distinction serves no purpose that I can detect.

            I would guess you are an English speaker. Objective, possessive and subjective cases.

            Just be thankful you are not a Latvian speaker. They have seven cases for nouns: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative and vocative.

        3. “that’s just crappy English”

          You could say the same about the lyrics of Willy Nelson’s song, “Me and Paul”:

          “We received our education
          In the cities of the nation, me and Paul.”

          But in fact it isn’t crappy English; it’s Paul English, Willy’s longtime drummer. 😊

    1. McWhorter defended that colloquial usage in one of his recent linguistically oriented NYT pieces — and has done so going back to at least 2016. See here.

      He also goofed around with it on Twitter here.

    2. I also agree with McWhorter wholeheartedly. And that’s what jumped out at me too…

      Not sure what it is, but I don’t find McWhorter’s prose particularly enticing. It sounds stilted, not a little convoluted, and somewhat jarring. Now, this may be because English is not my mother tongue. I wonder whether native English speakers get the same impression.

  7. The regular episodes of pretended moral panic over “blackface” make me look forward to the obvious,
    logical extension of this comedy to “redface”. Anyone who has ever watched a Western movie made in the USA in the 1930s. 40s, and 50s will have seen innumerable non-Indian actors playing the roles of native Americans: veteran character actors like Anthony Caruso and Henry Brandon (Scar in the classic John Ford western “The Searchers” ) and other professionals who were or became “stars”, such as Debra Paget, Jeff Chandler, Burt Lancaster, and Charles Bronson. These instances of redface are shown incessantly on television, and I suppose that some of them figure in academic courses on film. The outrage brigades have a rich source of material about which to stage new temper tantrums.

    Needless to say, further extensions of this principle come to mind. There was Al Pacino playing Shylock in 2004, and Dev Patel playing Sir Gawain in a film just released. The comedy has no end.

      1. And a Yiddish-speaking Indian at that! But, of course, there were stories about where the 10 lost tribes of Israel ended up.

      1. An unrivaled classic of Hollywood silliness. If someday a course on the funny side of “cultural appropriation” is ever developed, this movie has got to be exhibit A. Surprising that Sarah Jeong and the like never got around to demanding John Wayne’s cancellation on account of it.

      2. How about Tony Randall as Dr. Lao? Or Warner Oland as Charlie Chan? Or David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine? I guess using makeup to create fake epicanthic folds is similar to blackface.

  8. “Were me and my students missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened?”

    I see that Prof. McWhorter has gone from defending, in one of his recent NYT linguistic pieces, the colloquial use of the “me and ______” construction where the conventions of English grammar would ordinarily call for use of the nominative case pronoun, to now employing it slyly in his own writing.

  9. McWhorter writes, “In 2021, there is barely a person alive who attended a minstrel show performed as mainstream, professional entertainment. Even those who may have caught ragtag amateur groups keeping the tradition alive are likely now quite elderly.” That may be true in the US, but to our shame the blackface “Black and White Minstrels Show” was broadcast on the BBC from 1958 until it was finally cancelled in 1978. In the ’70s it was the basis of a London-based theatre show that toured internationally.

    Of course, McWhorter might regard me as “likely now quite elderly” although I haven’t (quite) hit 60 yet…

    1. I really dislike(d) The B&WMS. But I never thought of it as shameful. I had insufficient indoctrination. I never got the impression the show was meant to be insulting.

      1. I don’t think it wasn’t meant to be insulting, but the BBC was probably behind the curve in recognising that the show’s time was up. Bizarrely, in 1975 Lenny Henry became the first (maybe only?) black performer in the show’s history.

          1. It was The Comedy of Errors, appropriately enough in the Olivier Theatre. He did a brilliant one-man show in which he seamlessly switched between multiple characters, especially in the final section, without you ever losing track of which one was speaking – simply incredible.

            Fun fact: his actual name is “Lenworth” after Dr Lenworth who was in charge at his birth.

            1. D’oh – that was meant to be “he also did a brilliant…” . It was broadcast one Christmas on TV, but I don’t remember the name of the show, sadly.

  10. I find the the whole subject of “blackface” curious. This is something I would never do for variety of reasons. One of them is not because I am disrespecting people of colour.

    I am not keen on dressing up in general. Don’t like make-up. And probably most telling I (like others I suspect) have a very mild xenophobia. Some might call this racism. So, because I don’t do blackface I might be racist. Interesting.

    1. I’m pretty sure I wore blackface in a village pantomime version of Aladdin in the ’60s when I was about 5 years old. (For some reason, the forty thieves were played by about ten kids, and we had to keep running back stage, changing headgear and then making a new entrance.) Cancel me now, I guess…

      1. You and me both, Jez. I confess that I used makeup to darken my skin tone when I dressed up to play an Arab sheik. There are photos of me in this costume that will probably be unearthed some day. How can me and you prepare for our inevitable defenestrations?

        1. I’m pretty sure no photos exist of my truly ground-breaking performance (!) as thief number 8 (or whatever) in the Meopham Players’ production. Incidentally, it’s pronounced “Meppam”. A nearby village called “Trottiscliffe” is pronounced “Trozley” – not that they’re trying to identify outsiders or anything…!

          Funnily enough, years after moving from Meopham I met someone whose guitar teacher lived in the same house that we had briefly rented there. For his sake, I hope that they had got rid of the numerous mice – our elderly cat Tibby certainly wasn’t up to the job! Tibby was named for Shakespeare’s Tybalt “the prince of cats” in Romeo and Juliet; my pretentious cat names have some family precedent it seems. (Marcus Clawrelius, sadly no longer with us, appeared on these pages a little while ago: ).

          1. I’m aware of the unexpected “Anglicization” of strangely spelled words. I once worked with a Brit who educated me in the correct English pronunciation of “Beauchamps:” beechum.

            1. The classic examples are the aristocratic surnames “Featherstonhaugh” (pronounced “Fanshaw” ) and “Cholmondeley” (pronounced “Chumlee”).

              1. With half the syllables swallowed. My dad used to do a great imitation of Harold Macmillan.

  11. Olivia Cook, the Freshman Theater and Dance Major, who reported the crime, is the person who should be cancelled and asked to leave the University of Michigan campus. Perhaps she can get a full scholarship to the Evergreen State University in Olympia Washington, which has renown for its wokeness.

  12. But is there no statute of limitations on how long a people will feel actual injury about such a thing? In 2021, there is barely a person alive who attended a minstrel show performed as mainstream, professional entertainment.

    This is tangential to the main point, but I am only fifty-five and I remember with great clarity The Black and White Minstrel Show. It was very popular Saturday evening viewing in the 70’s. At the time, most people in Britain thought nothing of it. It was just actors wearing make up.

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