Accusations of racist portrayals in entertainment extends back more than one hundred years. The debate on this issue is represented in an opinion piece published in The Moving Picture World on October 15, 1910. I offer this artifact without commentary.
Now and then there crops out a crusade against a play that seems to be a deliberate attempt to ridicule some certain race or religion, particularly race. There is very little ridicule of religion of any kind done in a public way anywhere. A year or so ago certain distinguished representatives of the Irish people made strenuous objection in various parts of the country against what is generally known as the "stage Irishman." The agitation became very heated and in a number of instances it went so far as the throwing of missiles at Irish comedians in various parts of the land.
It seems that now the crusade has cropped out against the moving picture with the Jewish people as the plaintiff. From reports that come to us a certain picture has been objected to in Boston on the grounds that it ridiculed the Jewish people. We do not know what the picture was and for the purposes of this discourse it is not particularly necessary to have the name of it. The principal thing to be borne in mind, in these days of nervous prosperity, is that there are very many irritable people knocking about, and if you are not careful what you say or do you are going to be set upon, even though you never thought of offending anybody. There is a good deal of hyper-sensitiveness about this race business, and some races seem to be more sensitive than others. Every race has its typical ideal. Washington, for instance, is the typification of all that is good and lofty to American minds. Frederick the Great is the idol of goodness to the German people, Garibaldi inspires beautiful thoughts with the Italian, while Napoleon holds an equal place in the hearts of the French. These men are ideals and the exhibition of their pictures at most any time and place is a symbol of reverence. But typifications do not stop with reverential figureheads. As every nationality has its ideal, so also does it have its caricature. Through a long succession of humorous artists and writers, there have come, as a matter of evolution, stereotyped figures that are recognized everywhere at a glance to be typical of the general characteristics of some nationality, and accepted as a joke at the expense of that nation, even by the natives themselves. Thus do we come by the well known figure of "Uncle Sam." "John Bull," "La Belle France." etc.. but these are mostly political. There is another, or national type, that we all know. The fat German with his long blonde moustache and long stem pipe; the Frenchman with his three pointed whiskers and the shrug; and so on through the whole list of nations and races.
There are funny looking people belonging to every race. Among a whole race of people there is bound to be some similarity, as we know. Therefore, among a whole race of people the funny ones taken together are perhaps so similar that they may be easily embodied into a distinct type. We do not believe a sensible man of any race would deny that there are funny specimens of that race. We do not believe he would deny that there are also characteristic proclivities or instincts that are peculiar to his race. For instance, the Jewish people are noted for their business instinct, while the colored man is noted for his fondness for chicken or watermelon. There is nothing disgraceful about either of these things, so why not admit it, especially if it is true?
Every race is caricatured, and, naturally enough, the best delineators of racial humor are those within the race. Such men as Harry Lauder, who show us the funny Scot, is a Scot himself. All of the best Jew comedians belong to that race, and the same may be said of all the others, especially the Irish, for during that crusade it turned out that the Irish comedians were, as a rule, more Irish in blood than the crusaders themselves. There is no good reason why anyone should find amusement at the expense of one race, and then wax indignant when the fun is poked at his own race. But this is very true, nevertheless. Go to a theater and you will not find an Irishman defending the negro race from any negro makeup he may see there. You will not hear the Jew protest against an exaggerated German. No, they both laugh with the rest. But turn it around so it strikes home and they are indignant, indeed, which shows that they are one-sided and unwilling to contribute their share to the gavety [merriment] of nations.
There is no nation on the face of the earth that has been caricatured more than the American, and the best of it we get is done by Americans themselves. If "Mutt and Jeff" were Jewish or Irish characters there would be a protest right away, but being Americans, it is all right, simply because the American enjoys a laugh at his own expense. You never heard an American complain at a tramp character, and yet the tramp is typically American. Also the "Rube," or farmer, or grafter. Looking at the serious side, it is just and fair to say that for every Shylock. Shakespeare wrote a Richard III; meaning, of course, that he did not spare his own race any more than any other. When it comes to villains in real life, the proportion of them is about the same in every race and nation.
If the picture complained of in Boston included a Jew in the role of a villain, we are not altogether shocked, for such a thing is possible. The Jewish people should reflect that to balance that one Jewish villain they have seen probably several thousands of Christian villains, written and acted by Christians, without any particular disparagement to the race. If the picture complained of contained a funny Jew, we are not surprised, for such a thing is possible. It was a well known Jew who made the remark that "There is nothing in the world funnier than a funny Jew."
This complaint from Boston inclines us to think that the complainant is rather thin-skinned and sensitive, as well as a little inconsistent.