The Whiteface Experiment And Why It Failed

By: Fritz Algard

Everybody Has Heard Of Blackface. But Whiteface? Not So Much. Here’s Why It Never Caught On.

The term “blackface” has received significant attention in an increasingly race-conscious society.  The use of blackface dates back to 19th century “minstrel shows” and Vaudeville performances, where white actors would dress in black face, often to portray negative racial stereotypes.

Many social commentators have suggested that the contemporary use of blackface by young Whites is a symptom of an underlying ignorance to the history of blackface and to current racial struggles. Philadelphia Community College Professor Walter Cox has been one of these voices.

“A white kid dressing up in blackface on Halloween just doesn’t get it,” Cox said. “White people can put on blackface and then just wipe it off whenever they please. Many of us don’t have that option,” he said.

“And while whites joyfully prance around in blackface, the black community is reminded of a time when racialized comedy was an acceptable form of entertainment,” he added.

It was this frustration that prompted Cox to flip the scenario and perform a social experiment.

“If whites are so flabbergasted when blacks take offense to blackface, what would happen if we turned the tables?” Cox asked.

Cox took that question and turned it into a disastrous and controversial social experiment. He assembled a team of African American volunteers to partake in what he referred to as “White Friday”, a day where black Philadelphians put on whiteface for the day. Cox teamed with Philadelphia Community College’s School of Cosmetic Beauty to dress participants in a heavy white powder.

“When we take offense to something, the dominant white community writes us off”, Cox said. “What happens when we try to impinge on the so called privileged class?”

He dropped his volunteers off at Philadelphia’s diverse Society Hill community, strapped with hidden recording devices. The results – 3 arrests and 6 calls to the police, – were “unexpected”, Cox said.

One volunteer, Darnell Williams, was investigated by police after he complimented a white mother on her young child in a stroller.

“She just started running away, screaming, asking that I spare her,” Williams said.

Just blocks away from Williams’ altercation, police were called to an active armed robbery at the Shot Tower Coffee Shop in the Queen Village section of South Philadelphia.

The call was placed after an experiment volunteer, Quincy Mack, entered and told patrons that he was looking for The Shot Tower. The moment Mack said the word “shot”, every patron ran out screaming. When he reached into his wallet to tip the barista, she pushed the cash register over the counter and told him to take it all.

“I just wanted to leave a nice tip. The espresso was beyond reproach,” Mack said.

After investigation, police declined any robbery-related charges, instead charging Mack with possession of illegal drugs after recovering white powdery residue from his face.

Several Society Hill residents took offense to the experiment, including local hunting shop owner Ernie Gilroy.

“It’s like they were mocking us. It’s like they don’t care how we feel,” said Gilroy.  

“I don’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable in my own community,” he said.

Cox told media at a press conference last week that the failed experiment reflected the racial power imbalances in the city. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested for riding a bicycle the wrong way on a one-way street. He was denied bail, and is currently unavailable for comment.