Now, before I’m accused of supporting a double standard in which it’s fine for the likes of Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and the Wayans brothers to don “whiteface” while Fallon’s portrayal is “problematic,” let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Although I’m personally not a fan of anyone portraying another racial group, there are broader institutional dynamics at play here. So, let’s stay on subject, shall we?

Back to Fallon: While he was not the only white actor on SNL to be ill-advisedly painted brown for comedic effect (remember Billy Crystal’s dead-on Sammy Davis Jr.? Darrell Hammond’s Jesse Jackson? Fred Armisen’s Obama?), his prior portrayal of Rock was mired in racial stereotypes, including references to crack, Rick James and sneakers. Nearly two decades later, the Globes moment—this time in reference to the O.J. Simpson trial and resulting hit miniseries—felt equally out of touch, somewhat surreal and more than a bit “meta.” As writer Manuel Betancourt tweeted:


But besides being an awkward moment, was it even a necessary one?

Even if Rock—a two-time Oscar host himself—offered Fallon hosting advice, at what point did common sense fail to advise that it was probably inappropriate for a white host to impersonate a black man’s dialect—particularly on the heels of perhaps the most racially charged election season in American history since the civil rights era—solely for the sake of making a joke about a black man charged with killing his white ex-wife? (See? I told you: meta.)


But if, in true Hollywood fashion, we pull out to the “wide shot,” so to speak, a more telling picture emerges of late-night television’s resident darling. Yes, Fallon is the man who brought us patron saint Michelle Obama “mom dancing,” the hilarity that is “Lip Sync Battle” and the “Legendary Roots Crew” into our homes five nights a week. But as with his good friend Justin Timberlake, it could also be argued that one of the key components of his success has been his staying in comfortable proximity to black culture … even while occasionally mocking and exploiting it. As aptly noted in a 2015 academic paper by David F. Potter:

Hosted by a white male, (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon) employs the backing of a renowned Hip Hop group, The Roots, of which the core majority are black members. While The Roots occupy a prominent position as the show’s house band and are, at times, included in sketches, they are oftentimes used as secondary contributors. Perhaps the most notable re-occurrence of this trend is in the ‘History of Rap’ performance by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake—a segment in which the two white performers educate the audience on the development of black Hip-Hop music while The Roots provide a backing soundtrack and otherwise do not participate. This example of cultural appropriation, when analyzed alongside underlying ideologies, is problematic for a number of reasons…In the minstrelized reinvention of black culture from a white perspective, TTSSJF (commodifies) the cultural art forms of black culture for its own passive entertainment and economic gain. Cultural misappropriation as comedy functions as a form of cultural control over manifestations of blackness…TTSSJF’s portrayal and consumption of blackness does not serve as a sociopolitical critique of white dominance, but rather as a celebration of it.


Indeed, it was difficult to watch Fallon’s impression of Rock occurring within mere feet of his musical director and chosen DJ for the evening, Tonight Show bandleader (and Roots founding member) Questlove. After all, even the presence of a DJ onstage was a novelty intended to express that Fallon and, by extension, the Golden Globes were current and cool. It would be fair to say that aside from providing great music, the Roots serve the same function on The Tonight Show, providing Fallon with a type of cultural currency that he would not otherwise possess.

It’s a smart move (if not a novel one), but it doesn’t excuse stupid humor. Fallon, who was perhaps best known for giggling at his own jokes during his SNL days, now seems to be content turning both his gaze and giggles onto us, the trustworthy commodities that we are. It’s a lazy method of comedy that relies less on his talent and cleverness than it does on our cultural quirks and cachet, effectively rendering Fallon—and others like him—the entertainment equivalent of “having black friends.”


I have no doubt that Fallon has black friends—and likely good ones, at that. But as I watched him pace the stage Sunday night, making his grotesque attempt at Chris Rock’s cadence and facial expressions, I couldn’t help wondering, “Who are his people?“

Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.