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Shocker: TV’s Quest to Purge Blackface Was Less Than Genuine

Was this ever really about being thoughtful, or just about not looking racist in public?

Dwight Schrute from "The Office" episode "Dwight Christmas" dressed up as Belsnickel
(This is not the blackface scene.)
The Office/YouTube

Here are some things I noticed while watching The Office on Netflix late one recent night while working on a cross stitch project:

I was watching the 9th episode of the 9th season, called “Dwight Christmas,” in which the character Dwight Schrute, played by Rainn Wilson, gets the opportunity to share his German Christmas traditions with the office by dressing up as Belsnickel, a Santa Claus-type character in German folklore. When the episode first aired, it included a scene of Nate, a worker in the Dunder Mifflin warehouse played by Mark Proksch, in blackface. He was supposed to be wearing the costume of “Black Pete,” an infamous blackface Dutch character and companion of Belsnickel, and is seen walking to, and then away from, the office building after Dwight texts him to abandon the character.

Here’s the scene from the official Office YouTube channel, if you’ve never seen it. Again, content warning, this scene features someone wearing blackface:

This scene, like many scenes throughout The Office, is supposed to be funny because it shows someone doing something very offensive, and the group’s negative reaction to the very offensive thing. This happens in episodes when Michael Scott (Steve Carell) puts on an offensive face costume and an “East Asian” accent and does a character called “Ping,” or when Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey) says that Indians eat monkey brains. Everyone else sees the offensive thing and reacts in disgust, and that’s the joke, that someone can be so ignorant and wrong.

What I did notice first, while watching that episode that night, was that the scene with Nate walking from and back to his car was completely cut from the episode. The show removed it, very loudly earlier this year, amid the uprisings against racist policing, as did other shows that used blackface on white actors, and whose showrunners and producers cared enough to look like they were on the right side of history about the use of blackface in 2020 (but not in, say, 2012……).

When the show pulled the scene, creator Greg Daniels released a statement, saying, “Today we cut a shot of an actor wearing blackface that was used to criticize a specific racist European practice. Blackface is unacceptable and making the point so graphically is hurtful and wrong. I am sorry for the pain that caused.”

(Relatedly, public perception on “Black Peter” a real character in Dutch Christmas folklore, seems to have changed in the Netherlands amid the uprisings, though I don’t read Dutch or trust an English Google translation of this article enough to interpret what that change actually looks like.)

Yeah, sure. We did a racist thing to make fun of racist traditions, and we’re sorry. I get it, except, here is the second thing I noticed: the episode still shows Nate, in partial blackface, later on!!! The shot comes right after Darryl Philbin (Craig Robinson) is seen pouring alcohol into the punch bowl. The camera pans up from Darryl to Nate, just behind him, with some of his face rid of the blackface makeup, except for overdrawn red lips and his beard and ears, still, uhh, rife with blackface makeup!!!!!! (I don’t really want to put the image in here since it can’t be hidden behind the click of a video, but trust me that it is there.)

Why would you say, OK, we’re gonna remove this actor in blackface from this episode, and then continue to show them wearing like, SO much blackface makeup! What does this editorial decision even mean? That full blackface is wrong but partial is fine if you don’t address it as being blackface? Because at this point, if you were to watch the show without ever having seen it prior to June, you’d be like, “Huh, why does that guy appear to be wearing partial blackface, and why has no one mentioned that he’s wearing partial blackface?” The mystery offends AND confounds!

And of course, as you may have watched above, the official Office YouTube account still contains the clip of Nate walking from and to his car, in blackface. I don’t know, if you’re going to denounce this piece of work you created, maybe you should do it across the board. Just a thought!

This feels like some indication about the rush to stop using racist caricatures in TV shows, of its intentions and what it actually sought to achieve, that some of this Office character’s appearance in blackface was left in the show. That really, it wasn’t about being thoughtful or conscious about the harm that’s resulted from the use of blackface in entertainment, and how it affected Black actors and audiences, but more so a rush to get ahead of bad press, and to avoid looking like the last show on a streaming platform with an actor in blackface. I mean, it’s been nearly half a year since the scene was pulled, and the flash of Nate is still up on Netflix. I don’t know if it was their intention to leave the second scene in, but the fact that it’s been up for so long after the first scene was removed makes me feel like its inclusion was more than a mistake or an oversight.

I suppose in a month this problem will cease to matter to Netflix — The Office is leaving the platform at the end of this year and moving over to NBC’s streaming platform Peacock. You’d hope that someone responsible for the show catches this Nate scene by then, and that it’s removed before it moves over, but given this lack of attention I have my doubts.