White Skin, Black Masks

Illustration for article titled White Skin, Black Masks

More thoughts on race and Mad Men Season 3 thus far:

To recap, Racialicious’ Latoya Peterson, writing for Double X, argued that Mad Men Seasons 1 and 2 came up short in the show’s portrayal (or lack thereof) of racial issues in the overall narrative of late ‘50s/early ‘60s social change.


I responded with my take, that it makes sense for the show’s main characters—an assortment of Madison Avenue types in segregated corporate America—to think of African Americans mostly as an afterthought (would they even understand the term “African American”). And that as a viewer, “One reason I enjoy Mad Men is that it’s a well-done show that doesn’t have any black characters it can mess up, so it’s more relaxing for me to watch, purely for its water-cooler value.”

Now, in week 3, with Roger’s instantly infamous blackface serenade, Latoya suggests that the show “finally” has come around to digging into an untapped racial component.

I agree with Latoya’s interpretation of Don and Betty’s housekeeper, Carla, launching a “preemptive strike against accusations of theft” in response to Grandpa Gene’s missing five dollars. They did a great job working the mutually suspicious interaction between Carla and Grandpa. This was the first time that the show had me reflecting on stories my mother used to tell me about my grandmother doing “days work” for white clients in the ‘50s.

But I disagree with Latoya’s view that the blackface scene “helps to establish how blacks were perceived then, far more than the various scenes in which the characters politely ignore or converse with Hollis in the elevator.”

Even in that time and place, a relative few white people ever performed in blackface, while a relative many probably had the experience of being generally oblivious or callous (intentionally or not) toward their black maid, elevator operator, delivery person, etc.

Which brings me back to my point from a couple of weeks ago—the further that Mad Men goes down this road, the more responsibility they incur to get it right in terms of how they portray black characters and white racism.


Mind you, I thought Roger’s blackface bit worked—it was a way to help viewers experience the visceral discomfort that normally nonplussed Don, who is not, as Paul says, “of the manor born,” felt. As Slate’s Patrick Radden Keefe points out, even if they’re also prejudiced toward black people, Don and Pete both immediately recognized Roger’s routine as hubristic and tacky.

It’s interesting watching Mad Men go down this path, but I disagree with the idea that a show like this is somehow flawed if it doesn’t flesh out its black characters to the fullest extent. They’ll be better off taking a smaller cut at race issues and really nailing the way they portray black characters, as opposed to weaving in a major racial theme and risking either overdoing or underdoing the nuance.


David Swerdlick

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter