White Christmas and the Problem of Whiteness

White Christmas Archives - The Ribbon in My Journal - Phyllis Hoffman  DePiano

Let me start by saying that I like a lot of things about the 1954 film, White Christmas. I love the sisters song (shown above), first and foremost, and I like most of the music. I like Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby. I like the dance numbers. I like the sweetness of loyalty.

I don’t like the fact that the only person of color in this film is a waiter/bartender, and I don’t like the implications of one of the dance routines and corresponding songs. I have been watching this movie for years, but in the wake of Black Lives Matter this film feels more problematic than I had previously recognized. Before talking about this, I have to say something about the film’s predecessor, Holiday Inn.

You won’t find the 1942 Holiday Inn airing on public television or streaming on Netflix or Amazon for free as you will White Christmas. Why? Because it’s racist AF. The blackface scenes–plural–are horrific and almost beyond belief. FFS, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds, you really shouldn’t have done those numbers. You shouldn’t have said those words. No. Just no. Here’s the big number:

But it’s more than the songs. The scene where actress in blackface is worried about looking ugly is jaw dropping. The scenes with “Mammie” and her children are patronizing. Take all of that out of the film, and it would be OK (this site disagrees)–but you can’t take it out. You have to watch this film knowing that it represents its culture through those scenes. So, I cannot enjoy this movie.

I thought that White Christmas might be safe to watch, but as I was watching it again this weekend I realized that it is not. Holiday Inn might be said to be the mama of White Christmas, for in the former audiences are introduced to the now class song “White Christmas.” But it might also be the ancestor of the latter film’s racism, and I’m not the first person to notice this. Watch this clip first:

Seems harmless at first, right? Just a bunch of white people dancing around. Nothing sounds racist–nothing looks to be racist (no blackface at least)–but the fact that this scene is labeled a minstrel show and includes elements of a caricaturist nature (the banjo, the cartoonish hands of the props, etc.) bring me right back to the latent racism embedded in this white, white, whiiiiiiite Christmas. This scene is a whitewashing scene.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, hey, don’t ruin my favorite Christmas shows for me. I heard that when I blogged about the stop motion animation and gender. But you know what…I am not ruining these shows for anyone. I’m pointing out what they are and what they do. You can still enjoy the other scenes, but you can’t overlook the ones you don’t want to think about because they cut through the fantasy to show signs of a harsh reality.

Am I being too harsh? Merry Christmas! 🙂

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