Sarah Silverman still doesn't get how to talk about blackface
And she doesn't seem to understand cancel culture, either
Take a quick second to Google comedian Sarah Silverman and Queen Latifah’s names together. The first images will be of gifs or screencaps from Silverman’s 2007 Comedy Central sketch show, The Sarah Silverman Show, showing the comedian in full blackface. Wearing the costume of minstrel shows — including the overly painted lips — Silverman says during the sketch, “I look like the beautiful Queen Latifah.”
While appearing as a guest on the Bill Simmons Podcast this week, Silverman revealed that she had recently been fired from a film production for the sketch. On the podcast, Silverman said, “I recently was going to do a movie, a sweet part, then at 11pm the night before, they fired me because they saw a picture of me in blackface from that episode.”
“I didn’t fight it. They hired someone else who is wonderful but who has never stuck their neck out,” Silverman added. “It was so disheartening. It just made me real, real sad, because I really kind of devoted my life to making it right.”
The revelation itself is not a problem. If you dress up in blackface, there is no statute of limitations on how long people can bring that up — and as a white woman, it certainly isn’t Silverman’s place to attempt to set one. What’s interesting is that Silverman brought up her blackface appearance within the context of discussing “cancel culture” and the “culture of people going backwards”, or digging into content made years prior in an effort to discredit public figures now.
At one point during the podcast, Silverman said, “I think it’s really scary and it’s a very odd thing that it’s invaded the left primarily and the right will mimic it,” before going on to dub the entire concept “righteousness porn”.
Anxieties around the myth of cancel culture have dominated celebrity discussions for some time. On the internet — where nothing ever dies — past behaviors are much easier to recollect. Clips like Silverman’s blackface sketch may have been buried if it weren’t for the existence of gifs, blogs, and digital memory. But here’s what’s important to remember about cancel culture: it’s not the enemy.
Cancel culture is not a terrible monster waiting to snatch up innocent celebrities and public figures. Instead, it primarily refers to people — often black women — making the active decision to divest from a celebrity and choosing to let others know why. Cancel culture is not a life sentence. As noted by writer Haaniyah Angus, “It seems that many are called out, shamed, and then come back to their livelihoods with no dent whatsoever.”
That much is made quite clear in Silverman’s case. Although Silverman stated in a 2018 GQ profile that she is “horrified” by the sketch and doesn’t stand by it, she cannot change the self-admitted reality that it helped launch her career. Rather than facing backlash at the time, Silverman said that she was praised for her sketch, adding, “It made me famous!” And even if she was fired from one movie, Silverman is still the host of television shows. She still has a career.
“It's inevitable that redemption will happen for the canceled,” Shamira Ibrahim wrote in her defense of cancel culture. “But in that space before the comeback, the best tool remains for the court of public opinion to demand apologies and utilize social media for accountability to set a rubric for engagement, for the future people in entertainment who do care about the communities that consume their content.”
Silverman claims that her fears around cancel culture rest with its ability to be abused by the right. However, her constant centering of her own feelings and emotions in a discussion about an action where she caused harm reveal the truth. The fear of cancel cultures comes from the fact that those in power are suddenly forced to reckon with black women who were never their audiences; instead, they were merely jokes and props to use for their own success.
Silverman’s blackface sketch is not an innocuous mistake; she was a grown woman when it happened. There is nothing wrong with going backwards to interrogate behavior, because the dehumanizing impacts of blackface didn’t spontaneously pop up within the 2010s. Instead, Silverman played into a larger history of black bodies being used as objects for profit, power, and pleasure.
In some ways, it’s ironic that a comedian who attempted to call out white feminism — which focuses on white women to the detriment of everyone else — centers her own feelings in a discussion on blackface. To Silverman, it may have been one sketch, a mistake concocted in a liberal bubble, but to black women, the history is much longer and much more sordid.