Category Archives: Race & Pop Culture

Casual Racism 101: “Race Changing” and 30 Rock

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Being a problematic, flawed, and contradictory human being, I will freely admit that I watch and am entertained by certain popular shows I would never describe as critically conscious or racially progressive. I’m not sure that any such show exists on television. I will also admit that 30 Rock does not fall into the entertainment category because I am personally biased against finding it endearing. Yes, The Office tried to get away with a peripheral character in Blackface as part of a “Christmas tradition” in the holiday episode of their current season. No, this does not get a pass because I’ve been a fan of the show for six years. So while I acknowledge that the shows I happen to like are equally deserving of the same scrutiny and criticism, they are not the subject of this particular post.

Last week the “stars” of 30 Rock appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to reflect on their seventh and final season. And one might ask: why watch the interview if you don’t like the show? Please refer to paragraph one, sentence one. I was watching Late Night because ‘I hearty Jimmy,’ and I watched most of the interview with the 30 Rock cast because I was curious to see if they would address the multiple spectacles of racist humor and uses of Blackface on the show—if even for a moment.

And the moment came.

When it was Jane Krakowski’s turn to share her favorite clip from the series, the actor who “portrays” a self-obsessed actor chose a clip prominently featuring her own character, Jenna Maroney. Most importantly, this was an opportunity to publicly downplay and ignore the two instances (that I know of) where she appeared in Blackface on the show; instead, she used the interview as an opportunity to publicly showcase it. Her introduction began something like this: “Well, once we established that Jenna was totally insane, we could get away with anything.” This is no excuse to disguise racist humor, in my opinion, but I momentarily hoped she was laying the groundwork for a follow-up commentary on their moral opposition to racism and some explanation of Blackface as “social satire.” I wouldn’t cosign this as a justification for Blackface from a sitcom, but that wasn’t even the justification she tried to make. A series of homophobic and transphobic remarks linking her character’s “insanity” to her “gender changing” for an xmas party costume were all that followed.

The clip played. On the left is Jenna’s “shman” (Will Forte) dressed as Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and on the right is Jenna in Blackface as Pittsburgh Steelers athlete Lynn Swan, completing their couples costume of “two black swans.”

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Jane Krakowski would only address the fact that her character had temporarily assumed a different gender identity, and made absolutely no mention of the fact that she was also dressing up as Black. It was when Krakowski described her character as participating in “gender changing” that Tina Fey casually interrupted her a few moments later to add “and race changing,” which I translated as her white code words for Blackface. No one called it what it is, reminding me of the phrase coined by Toni Morrison: “racetalk,” or the “explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than pressing African-Americans to the lowest level of the racial hierarchy.” To me, this exemplifies the marriage of white liberalism and political correctness. A show like 30 Rock can celebrate feminist subplots and liberal politics while still reinforcing dehumanizing racial tropes and employing casual racism under the banner of “irony.” And when they use very clear and unequivocal Blackface, symbolic language disguises it as “race changing.”

Historical amnesia and neutrality in entertainment allow whites to be “pioneers” all over again, thereby enabling discussions of racist humor to be either congratulatory or effectively mundane and placating. I also sense a desire to treat the use of Blackface as courageous, edgy, and worthy of the highest recognition, as Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar nomination for his Blackface role in Tropic Thunder would attest. When an equation is drawn between Jenna Maroney’s “gender changing” and “race changing,” this wrongly suggests these politics and identities are interchangeable, if not identical—something straight/cis/white folks are neither qualified nor entitled to decide. Drawing this equation also suggests that conservative boundaries are being liberally pushed when a white woman dresses up like a Black man and sings a song next to a white male dressed as a white woman. So this display of transphobia and racism (treating trans and Black identities as comic costumes) are casually transformed into harmless entertainment and white folks can continue the fantasy that we are pushing our own prejudiced boundaries.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (co-author of Racism Without Racists and White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism) has identified a “new racism” in the US as a subtle, subversive, and often casual racism that has become more commonplace than the overt, hostile, and explicit racism of previous decades. Don’t get excited—this does not mean the hostile and the explicit have vanished and been completely replaced. He is talking about public discourses of white liberalism where issues involving race are whitewashed and/or “sugarcoated” to avoid the accusation of racism. So if Tina Fey can sugarcoat Blackface as some kind of random/everyday “race changing,” she can avoid accountability for the very specific, historical, and racist meaning of this recycled comedy.

Creators and writers can only project so far: they can try to make it seem as if the racism and racist humor of their characters are disconnected fictions without any basis in reality, but characters like Jenna Maroney are not improvised—she and her Blackface are consciously created and actively written. The characters on a show might be “insane,” but behind every crazy character is a calculating and moderately sane writer. I don’t care if writers are dropping acid and taking body shots, teams that write for hit shows on mega networks make critical decisions, approve content, and get their shit together eventually. And 30 Rock is one of the most, if not the most, celebrated and awarded television comedies in the history of television comedies. This is more proof for the point that something that was once explicitly hostile and gratuitously demeaning in previous decades (Blackface) can be transformed into a subtle, neutral, and sugarcoated version of the original in the contemporary moment. Tina Fey can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

—DD

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On Azealia Banks and White Gay Cis Male Privilege

The Crunk Feminist Collective

Guest Post by Edward Ndopu

Recently, the media has exploded with news of a Twitter battle between rapper Azealia Banks and gossip blogger Perez Hilton. After Hilton inserted himself in an altercation between Banks and fellow female rapper Angel Haze, taking Haze’s side, Banks denounced him as a “messy faggot”. She then went on to say that she used the word to describe “any male who acts like a female”. Rumours have since abounded that Banks is being dropped from her record label as a result of her speaking out against Hilton. Rather than taking sides, I believe it is most important for us to examine the context within which this media escalation has happened. Instead of writing off Azealia Banks, herself a queer woman, as homophobic, we should instead be exploring the femmephobia and racialized sexism at play in the public’s response to this debacle.

The public spat between…

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Asked & Answered: Django Unchained

Below in bold are a series of questions I received late last night via email regarding the post I wrote on Django Unchained. Answers will follow.

Where does a writer’s license to imagine things other than their life begin? Must all works be non-fiction in first person? In that case can we ever talk about slavery at all?

This discussion is not so broad as to include all works of writing in their various forms, it is intentionally limited to the direct subject matter: a specific piece of fiction concerning a specific narrative. I question the assumption of total freedom and license in storytelling when its forms are very specialized, regulated, and inscribed with the power dynamics of race. I’m not exactly sure who “we” are in this scenario, but it would stand to reason that you are referring to white people. Saying it is disrespectful and unjustified for a white director to make a movie from the perspective of a slave and his path of imagined vengeance is not the same as saying “white people can never talk about slavery at all.” There is a big difference, and these statements should not be used interchangeably. However, the institution of slavery was not fiction, and a “first person narrative” of the slave experience does not exist if it is written by a white person. A writer’s “license to imagine things other than their life” began hundreds of years ago, and it should end any time this license grants those who have not experienced racial oppression to use it as a point of entertainment and campy gore. To suggest racial oppression is neutral content easily accessible and comprehensible to white writers, is to suggest the historical wounds and material consequences of racial oppression can be severed from this content under the pretext of “art.” I would call this violence, not art.

There’s not a single PoC that has the experience of being a slave. It surely is a huge leap to even pretend to remember what that was like, no matter what ancestral memory has been passed down or culturally exists. It’s been well over a hundred years. Surely, someone should be able to represent or remember it. Where do you draw the line?

I would ask you to take notice of these assumptions: “it surely is a huge leap to even pretend to know what that was like,” and “surely someone should be able to represent it.” So the assumption is that Black folks have no oral traditions and histories that keep this legacy alive, and the implied argument is that Black people in the contemporary moment have no legitimate connection to their own history because it happened hundreds of years ago. Please see Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon for a much more involved perspective on the endurance of slavery that I will not be addressing here. Black folks (from the era of slavery to the present moment) have already been writing their own stories and producing their own knowledge. If you dare to suggest POC have no contemporary experiences of slavery “no matter what ancestral memory” exists, then I question why Tarantino isn’t subjected to the same level of scrutiny—someone who has absolutely zero frame of reference or memory regarding that side of history. I draw the line at the argument that POC can’t logically associate with their histories, but white artists can. If you think it is a “huge leap” for Black people to relate to their own ancestors, then what kind of biblical leap is a white male taking when he thinks he can represent, remember, and/or relate to their ancestors? This is when a vague and mysterious “someone” who “should be able to represent and remember” inevitably translates to “a white person who should be able to write stories about POC.”

It’s because of racism and white supremacy that narratives told by white folks are privileged over narratives POC have been telling for centuries. And I wonder…  who can draw the line between an appropriate and inappropriate amount of time to pass before communities’ tragedies become subject to an imaginary public domain?

Is it solely based on race? Does research or knowledge play a part? Who gets enfranchised into the cultural memory conversation? Are perspectives from non-slaves totally useless and worthless? Should we ignore abolitionists (however problematic they were) or what went on personally and historically for conflicted people like Jefferson? Does that have no use?

So what if I draw the line at race? Why is this so controversial and questionable? Is it only “legitimate” if I draw the line at “research and knowledge”? Drawing the line at race equally involves research and knowledge. I am skeptical whenever anyone suggests that living legacies of gruesome atrocities can easily be understood (then written about) just by going to the library and opening a book. Learning is one thing, appropriating an experience to invent a prolonged and hideously violent fantasy in the service of a director’s career is another. This collection of inquiries also relies on the assumption that the consequences of slavery (segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, white supremacy) no longer exist in this country and everyone has fully recovered. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has documented and explained how there are more Black men imprisoned today than there were enslaved in the Antebellum South. No one is entitled to make the decision for all Black people that their mourning period is over, their history is beyond them, and white people get to tell their stories because of points A and B. Discussions about abolitionists have no use in this particular context because Quentin Tarantino is not an abolitionist and we are not talking about a narrative written by or about one.

Should television shows not feature bankers, or mobsters, or civil rights leaders because the experience of being one is ineffable and non-transmittable? The logical conclusion of your argument potentially blows up and destroys the value of every artistic representation based on the ideas that 1) writers can’t know anything they haven’t directly lived 2) the chief value of art (or a chief value of art) is how it is mimetic. Especially when it comes to a historical film.

First of all, it is intellectually dishonest to carelessly compare chattel slaves to the characters of “bankers” and “mobsters” (then throw in “civil rights leaders” for the sake of political correctness—which television shows have ever featured civil rights leaders?). That their experiences might be “ineffable and non-transmittable” was never my point or my argument: bankers and mobsters, even though their theatrical depictions may have been based on actual figures, are not oppressed identities. It is not the same to imagine a wealthy mobster who desires guns and prostitutes, as it is to imagine an oppressed slave who desires liberation and vengeance; in that context, one has power and the other does not, one is a character and the other is not. With the over-representation of white literature and the demonstrated ability of white authors to write endless narratives about white experiences, I don’t see how it is unthinkable to resolve that white authors have enough content to explore. Ultimately, the “chief value” of art is a highly subjective and debatable topic, and if rightfully observing how whiteness and racism have dominated storytelling (in all popular forms in the US) destroys the “chief value of art,” then so be it and so much the better. If this “chief value” dictates that white writers have the right (as Tarantino said) to writer whatever they want, then this means the “chief value” of art is disenfranchising the voices of POC.

Who owns history? Is it just the persecuted groups or the groups viewed as persecuted? Or is it based on blood? Do Chinese nationals have no right to talk about or set a drama in 18th century London? There has to be some level on which all history is owned by everyone, if people understand the bounds. It gets really silly when that’s brought to an extreme as well.

The victors own history. That’s kind of the point. If I look at this situation critically, I see a white writer who is re-enforcing the legacy of ownership by treating slaves, slavery, and this history as his creative property. Do his “rights” and “demands” as a writer take precedence over the rights POC have to storytelling and self-determination? I would say no, and I would also say the “creative freedom” of white writers has been taking precedence over the creative/cultural productions of POC for many hundreds of years. When I consider the fact that the whole of mainstream textbook and knowledge production in the US (including, but not limited to, our entire system of education) has been a franchise of white authors and white history, I am amazed when someone takes offense at the suggestion that even a sliver of the space whiteness occupies should be relinquished so POC can tell their own histories. History is based on a number of things, and I can’t claim to know all of them, but I do know that the histories of oppressed groups and the histories of groups in power are not interchangeable, nor are they identical.

Here are some resources that informed/educated the responses above (in addition to those already mentioned):

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James
Beloved
by Toni Morrison
Roots
by Alex Haley
The Souls of Black Folk
by W.E.B. DuBois
Our Nig
by Harriet E. Wilson
Finding Sojourner’s Truth: Race, Gender, and the Institution of Property
by Cheryl Harris
Whiteness as Property
also by Cheryl Harris

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Whiteness Unchained: When a National Shame Becomes Camp

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Only recently did I learn of the longstanding feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. This was a result of internet research I did after seeing a preview for Tarantino’s new movie Django Unchained, and after a dear friend sent me a link to Lee’s refusal to see the movie because it was “disrespectful” to his ancestors. As much as I agree with him intellectually, I can’t agree on the basis of having ancestors in common. In the social legacy of whiteness, there exists a privileged position of detachment from the pain of chattel slavery that renders this a historical event, rather than a historical experience with generational meaning. In the US, there is no understanding in white consciousness of being dehumanized as chattel. Slavery is not my history, heroic Blackness is not my identity, and any form of fictionalized vengeance that combines the two is not my story to tell. Quentin Tarantino has a different opinion:

“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white … that is racist.”

He made these remarks in 1997 in response to criticisms from Spike Lee at the time, but they read as if they were said yesterday. I finally went to see the movie (which was as exciting as going to the doctor), but I’ll address one piece of whiteness at a time.

This is what I wondered at 3 AM with Tarantino’s defense still as fresh as a pile of shit in my mind: so anyone can speak on… anything they want? How many conferences on obstetrics and gynecology would doctors attend if they were conducted by plumbers? Who asks their barber or hairdresser to explain organic chemistry? Who gets their legal advice from a veterinarian? These qualifications seem to warrant higher levels of respect in their differentiation, and in the demand that only the experienced and knowledgeable represent themselves. Credibility and poetic license are reserved, however, and given without question to the white tradition of producing anthropological studies or creative fantasies about the non-white “other.” This would be the lesser-known genre Tarantino has been exploiting for most of his career.

Samuel L. Jackson in a Blues Brothers suit carrying a wallet branded with “Badass Motherfucker” is a character. That is recycled and revised Blaxploitation fiction. However, a Black couple separated by slavery and beaten by members of the KKK are not the creative property of Quentin Tarantino. These “characters” are based on historical facts and lived experiences of racist violence. When I think of famous Black filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to think beyond Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; when I think of famous white filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to keep track. This structural inequity and white supremacy in US show business makes Tarantino’s accusation of (reverse) racism highly untenable. The fact that one of these precious few Black filmmakers dared to challenge the racism of a white director’s movies, one of the few in Hollywood who could tell a story like Django Unchained without racism and be entitled to tell it, makes Tarantino’s accusation deplorable and ridiculous.

Even a movie supposedly centered around a slave turned bounty hunter in pursuit of revenge is a movie that stars white people with Black people in supporting roles. And to be accurate, slavery is reduced to nothing more than a geographical backdrop, social scenery, and circumstantial setting for a signature Tarantino parody—this time using a Spaghetti Western formula. But there was something about selling this as a Western that confused me. I had no trouble comprehending the references in the throwback “Wild West” font of the opening credits, the desert-like landscape, and John Wayne outlaw music. However for the rest of the movie, audiences were apparently meant to believe a Western was taking place in the… Antebellum South?

I got a sickening feeling after the movie spent its ten minutes in Texas and shifted to southern plantations, that the era of chattel slavery was chosen because it provided new opportunities for Tarantino to explore/exploit gratuitous violence. And I’m not talking about the many white people whose heads were blown through and whose dicks were shot off, or the projectile blood from any number of body parts exploding like a can of red paint on the receiving end of a shotgun. This is all typical for a Tarantino flick. I’m talking about the two mandingo slaves who fight to the death in Calvin Candie’s parlor, ending with both men covered in blood and the victor not only clawing his victim’s eyes out by hand, but also smashing his face with a hammer. I’m talking about the slave who is attacked and torn to death by a pack of vicious dogs, a punishment ordered by Calvin Candie. I’m talking about Jamie Foxx as Django hanging naked from his ankles almost visibly castrated by a white slaver with an orange-hot blade, and Kerry Washington as his wife Broomhilda whipped and nearly bashed in the head with a hammer by Calvin Candie. As it turns out, the institution of slavery was not violent and/or awful enough, but must be saturated with a series of humiliations and atrocities in its storytelling.

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All I can say about Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance as Calvin Candie is that it made him less of a convincing actor and more of a convincing racist. He was a little bit too believable for me, and by that I mean the slave master stole the show from the slave.

The comic camp created around this national shame is expressed and made sympathetic through many exchanges of witty banter and Tarantino’s tendency to make heinous villains handsome, charming, and/or funny. A hooded white militia spends at least five minutes having a *hilarious* argument about one of their wives insufficiently cutting the eye-holes in the white “bags” on their heads. Although no one in the movie explicitly called them the KKK, they wore symbolic hoods and made a brief allusion to attacks in their “full regalia.” An opportunity to make the most excessive, outrageous, and overdone scene involving the KKK in their “full regalia,” and Tarantino didn’t take it. He made a subtle hint at these things that younger or less informed people in the audience might not notice. He made these characters look like simple vigilantes on horseback with cheap pillowcases on their heads. Yet when Django is given the “freedom” to purchase his own “valet” uniform, he emerges from the store with a white bow at his chin, a blue satin coat to match his blue satin trousers, silk stockings, and buckled shoes—an entirely unexplained transformation. Multiple comic spectacles are made of Black characters and the brutality of the violence they suffer, but the KKK only give a quick mention of their “regalia.”

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That is not Tarantino’s style; he doesn’t deal with any subject matter delicately, discreetly, sensitively, conscientiously, or with subtlety. Yet the KKK were somewhat disguised and miraculously escaped his confrontational and sensationalist plagiarism.

I could never imagine the diverse experiences Black folks might have when/if they see this movie, nor can I, as a white person, legitimately or personally take offense to the use of the N word. I can only comment on the extent to which I became more convinced the instances of the N word outnumbered the lines of dialogue Black characters had in the movie. After hearing the word fifty times, I stopped counting. Kerry Washington spoke less than ten times in two hours and forty five minutes. She is seen being ruthlessly whipped and branded as an object of abuse, or as a figment of Django’s imagination, until her physical form is finally produced when she is dragged naked and screaming from Calvin Candie’s “hot box”—a box in direct sunlight, mostly buried underground, and locked from the outside. Any other Black women who appear on screen are speechless, disoriented, or helpless. Django, whose name is the title of the movie and his vengeance the focus, spends 90% of the story saying next to nothing. Ultimately, this was an exploration of the white villain versus the white hero. And, oh yeah, a slave gets his wife and his freedom in the end.

There are two white heroes in Django Unchained. Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is the compassionate white bounty hunter who heroically dictates the terms of Django’s service and his freedom—an emphasis on white kindness and generosity, which I would say is the least important narrative to privilege in a movie about slavery. Schultz is, after all, the star and the one who avenges the slaves by killing Calvin Candie in the end. He was so overcome by his disgust for Candie’s racism that he just couldn’t help himself. After this climactic assassination, the last few moments where Django kills the rest of the white people in the movie and Calvin Candie’s “House Negro” (Samuel L. Jackson) seem like an afterthought. Django is given his moment only after Schultz has had his. The second white hero, Tarantino himself, delivers his version of victory, justice, and power to slaves by giving a happy ending to Django and Broomhilda.

This is the question I always have whenever filmmakers practice racism by appropriating stories from/inventing stories about POC: if this is a fantasy, if this is creative fiction, then why is racial oppression an inevitable and nonnegotiable reality? It seems the facts of white supremacy must remain true to life when any number of ridiculous things—a German bounty hunter disguising himself as a dentist, or a white woman writing the memoirs of Black maids—are unlimited in their fabrication. These fantasies are about good white people who grant some form of freedom to unusually talented characters of color, lending more attention to the Great Emancipator Complex than to well-developed and substantive roles for POC. As long as audiences are somewhat comforted by this, and equally entertained, one of the most gruesome tragedies in human history can be easily converted into a disgraceful and campy bloodbath. It is a filmmaker’s “right” to do so.

—DD

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