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Radio host defends wearing blackface, making racial comments

It didn't take long for a racially controversial routine to emerge in the local media after the landmark success of Barack Obama's election Tuesday as the nation's first black president.

The moment came at 6 a.m. Wednesday, when WWBA-AM 820 morning man Mark Larsen, who is white, dressed in blackface makeup at the start of his show.

Joined by the station's news director, Roger Schulman, Larsen joked about caking on the cosmetics and launched a number of racially influenced comments. Fans could watch the whole process via an in-studio Webcam.

"This gives me that Uncle Tom feel," said Larsen, who also joked about changing his name to Marcus Washington Larsen. "Are you sure this comes off? Because I don't feel like running for president."

Before Tuesday's election, Larsen talked about seeing a long line of black people waiting to vote at a Tampa Bay area polling place, saying they "looked like the line for takeout at Big Tim's Barbecue" in St. Petersburg.

And shortly after putting on the blackface makeup Wednesday, he told a caller he presumed to be black that "You love (America) because you have a man of color going to the White House. Before that, you probably were a malcontent."

Still, Larsen said he intended no racial insult.

"I wasn't making fun of black people," he said, noting that he was fulfilling a bet he made last year that he would wear blackface if America elected a politician named Barack Hussein Obama.

Bruce Maduri, president of WWBA owner Genesis Communications, spent the day in Melbourne and did not hear the routine.

"Knowing Mark, he's one of the least racial people I know," Maduri said. "I'm sure it probably was a bit that went bad."

Why wear blackface?

"If Dave Chappelle can wear whiteface and make fun of white people, then I should be able to do this," noted the host, who stressed his libertarian political views, saying he would have voted for black Republicans such as Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice.

"The point I'm making is there's a double standard here, and I don't abide by the double standard," Larsen added.

But there is a difference in wearing makeup to play a character of a different race — as Fred Armisen (Obama on Saturday Night Live) and Robert Downey Jr. (as a white "method" actor playing a black man in the Ben Stiller film Tropic Thunder) have done.

Donning the historic "blackface" makeup conjures an image symbolizing stereotypes of black people perpetuated in theater and film in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Beginning in the 1800s, white performers used blackface makeup, raggedy clothes and white-painted lips to play character called "coons." These figures were the stars of minstrel shows caricaturing black people as lazy, uneducated, superstitious, musical and childlike — all the stereotypes black people continue to fight.

Talk radio has taken some criticism during the presidential election for racially insensitive language — from some hosts' insistence that Obama supporters might riot on Election Day to conservative Rush Limbaugh's parody song Barack the Magic Negro, based on a line from a Los Angeles Times column.

Still, Larsen insisted he was not trying to evoke long-held stereotypes or racist imagery in his on-air jokes. A broadcaster for nearly 30 years, he once drew criticism during a stint on WFLA-AM 970 for a Wednesday "Humpday" news segment featuring bizarre stories lampooning gay people.

"What I did today was knuckleheaded and goofy, but … it wasn't a big deal to me," Larsen said. "I want to make it abundantly clear, I'm not on any mission to disparage anyone. I just don't play double standards."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Radio host defends wearing blackface, making racial comments 11/05/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 6:39pm]
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