Sarah Silverman, Blackface, and the Death of Postmodern Irony

The comedian Sarah Silverman recently acknowledged that her career has been damaged by a decade-old episode of The Sarah Silverman Program in which her character appears in a highly satirical version of blackface. Silverman has vociferously apologized for the episode, declaring “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch. I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on.”

Many have defended this particular usage of blackface by placing it within the contexts of comedy and satire. However, the episode represents more than the mere undulations of comedic boundaries. It is pointedly situated within two very different approaches to ameliorating social divides and hierarchies.

The blackface episode sits, self-consciously, at the crossroads of modern and postmodern politics. At one point, a crowd of supporters, also brandishing Silverman’s absurd version of blackface, are asked the typical protest question, “What do we want?” Their answer, however, does not reference the usual modernist tropes of equality and justice, nor does it refer to any specific markers of race. Rather, the crowd responds that what they want is “the freedom to explore issues of race in American culture through the use of postmodern irony!” The denial of this freedom from within the film/television industry, and the larger political community, raises the political implications of the death of postmodern irony, and the loss of an important political tool to fight injustice.

Postmodern politics arose in the late sixties as a response to the perceived inadequacies of modernity. The argument was that claims of “reason,” “rationality,” and “evidence” always served to further undermine marginalized peoples. The belief was that individuals divide the world into categories and that any attempt at reasoned refutation of existing dominant norms simply collapsed into, and reinforced, existing categories.

We see this prominently today in the use of “socialist” as a linguistic denier of rational discussion. The postmodern approach would not be to argue the merits (or inadequacies) of socialism, its supposed substance, or the irrationality of some. All such attempts would simply reinforce the category and allow for its continued manipulation by others. Instead, postmodern politics seeks to disentangle and deconstruct the category of “socialist” itself – to “de-rationalize” all categories – often through the use of parodic embellishment.

The attempt by early postmodern political theorists was to deconstruct existing norms by creating “events” – such as the “die-ins” and the “kiss-ins” – which the viewer couldn’t easily define, categorize, and then discard. Judith Butler wrote, “subversive practices have to overwhelm the capacity to read, challenge conventions of reading, and demand new possibilities of reading.” In other words, they have to overwhelm the categories and undermine their ability to define and subsume “rational” arguments for structural change.

Butler also noted that once “you know how to read them in advance, or you know what’s coming…they just don’t work anymore.” Every attempt at subversion is met with the creation of a new category which will be constructed, maintained and patrolled. Thus the rise of “hipster racism” which combines contested categories, and links disparate comedians and performers, into a singular denotation which functions to both obscure and abjure.

The point is neither to support nor defend “hipster racism” or any specific category; rather it is to examine the construction, usages, and political implications of all categories. A category is not a mere recognition of the pre-existent metaphysical sameness of its components; rather the category itself defines and coagulates its substance. The substance of a category is shaped, defined and compared by the need for the simplistic comfort of the category itself.

Silverman’s use of blackface was designed not as a counter-category, but as a means of undermining all categorical constructions. Those who criticize Silverman’s postmodern approach replicate the futility of modernist politics – the very kind of politics which has brought us to the political precipice upon which we now teeter. Silverman attempted to deconstruct the category of blackface; the modernist response has been a re-assertion and condemnation of the usage of blackface anywhere, anytime, and a fierce denial to those who would not merely critique but attempt to demystify and disempower through parody and satire.

At one point, as Silverman’s character is leaving the apartment with her new blackface makeup, she places a bandana on her head – another sign for the modernists of an obvious racial stereotype. Except that, as she leaves, Silverman declares, in an exaggerated New York accent “New York this is your last chance.” This line is a reference to the old Rhoda show in which Valerie Harper played a Jewish woman from New York. (Each episode began with a short “history” of the character read by Harper, the last line of which Silverman is citing.) Silverman is attempting to undermine the power of a particular category by dis-entangling it from a singular set of substances and re-entangling it within a host of disparate signifiers. Silverman’s blackface episode points in many directions, criticizing not only racism but also those liberals who believe that they can easily “live” the plight of others by being “black for a day.”

In the 1970’s the African-American comedian Godfrey Cambridge starred in a movie entitled Watermelon Man in which a white man (Cambridge in white-face) suddenly turns black overnight. The film is earnest in its depiction of what befalls Cambridge’s character as he loses his (white) wife and kids, and his home. The film is a highly modernist refutation of racism as the character is transformed from a white racist into a black militant.

Watermelon Man is comforting to modernists as a clear, reasoned, refutation of racism. But such approaches have been limited in their political effect. Postmodern irony and parody as evidenced through The Sarah Silverman Program is an attempt to place another arrow in the quiver of the fight for social and political justice. The defining, categorization, and repudiation of Silverman is, itself, an ironic and parodic performance of the modernist defense and reinforcement of an exhausted politics.


Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University;