How to Enjoy Pop Culture When You're Black
It's easy to write off pop cultural racism as "just a joke." But if we ignore small microaggressions, then we ignore how they create a larger picture of anti-black racism in society today.
There is a point in every young person's life when they have a rude awakening about how they fit into the world. For me, this point came when I found out that the cartoons that I spent so many hours watching were, unfortunately, all racist.
FOX's Animation Domination Sunday night block—at the time, it was The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad!—had long occupied a sacred space in my weekly schedule. It was a time when I could unwind, relax, and laugh without regard. But after taking a class in college that explained how racial stereotypes persist through visual representation in television and film, I quickly started to notice just how much each of my beloved cartoons fit right into the racist mold.
Dr. Hibbert was a black doctor on The Simpsons, voiced by a white actor, who once sang "Ol' Man River" to his Bill Cosby best; a 2003 episode of King of the Hill is titled "Racist Dawg," spelling intact; and, to give you an idea of the sort of humor commonly employed in Family Guy, the creators once used the Precious movie poster to promote themselves during Emmy nominations season—placing the phrase "VOTE FOR US OR YOU'RE RACIST" at the bottom.
Although I knew that I couldn't stop watching these shows cold turkey, I did try to find additional things that were entertaining without being simultaneously (and blatantly) offensive. What I immediately realized, however, was that even the most seemingly innocent content still manages to somehow, in some way, tie back to racism.
It will always be difficult to enjoy popular culture as a person of color.
There's a part in Trainwreck where Amy Schumer's character, giving a eulogy for her father, says: "I know he fucked up, and I know he probably offended every person here, but raise your hand if he was your favorite person." It's a touching moment that comes after we've seen Schumer's character riff on her father for being racist, misogynist, homophobic, and overall, a terrible person.
Although I laughed along with the film when I saw it a few weeks ago, I couldn't help but reflect on a similar situation: There I was, sitting in a movie theater, enjoying a movie that was written by and starring a public figure who I had recently vowed to stop supporting due to some of her previous racist remarks.
Just as quickly as she was crowned the unapologetic feminist we had all been waiting for, Amy Schumer's shine started to dim. She was criticized for advocating for a brand of feminism that routinely ignores the experiences of non-whites. During a standup special, Schumer mentioned that she "loves joking about race" before poking fun at how strange black names can be ("something wild, something crazy") and, although she said she wasn't "going to do some racist impersonation," she began to mock the ghetto black girl ("guuuurrll," some obnoxious yelling, and a casual reference to double-dutch). She concluded by acknowledging that the joke "doesn't always work" but that, "nothing works 100 percent of the time... except Mexicans."
That skit—coupled with a pair of jokes about how all Latina women are crazy and all Hispanic men are rapists—pushed Schumer into the media for her "shockingly large blind spot around race." Then, she justified the material, writing on Twitter: "It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it. Even if you personally did not." She insisted that she was "not going to start joking about safe material" before adding, "Trust me. I am not racist."
Naturally, being black, I did not trust this.
Black people have been at the butt of the joke in popular culture for longer than the term 'pop culture' has existed.
With all the recent buzz about political correctness destroying comedy, I constantly struggle with my anger. It's just a joke, right? I don't want to be the Debbie Downer that turns everything into a racial attack.
But the thing is, racist jokes just aren't funny—not now, nor have they really ever been. My culture, especially stereotyped approximations of it, is not something that I care to see packaged and exploited for the layman's appeal to laughter.
Black people have been at the butt of the joke in popular culture for longer than the term "pop culture" has existed. Back in the late 1830s, white audiences were particularly partial to seeing white performers in blackface, and minstrelsy helped to propel the idea that black people were loud, stupid, indignant, unkempt, and sexually insatiable. This trope continued when blacks were employed to portray themselves as these same characters, thus permanently pigeonholing them into stereotyped caricatures. Though blackface has long been considered a faux pas, its impact on the way that popular culture characterizes black people lives on.
This is why jokes like the ones Amy delivered during her standup special are so hurtful and destructive. Sure, a joke about "crazy" black names may seem perfectly innocent on the surface, but it takes on unprecedented power when you consider that people with white-sounding names on their résumés are 50 percent more likely to receive callbacks than those with black-sounding names. These jokes don't exist in a vacuum; they affect my everyday life.
I went to see Trainwreck anyway, because I wanted to be part of the same pop-culture conversations as every other 20-something. But as I sat in the theater, I felt guilty about every joke that I laughed at—regardless of whether or not it was offensive or insensitive (of which there were many). I felt guilty about enjoying anything that was created at the hands of this woman who I had so vehemently railed against a few weeks prior. Amy Schumer was not my friend. She was not someone whose views and opinions I agreed with. She was the enemy—and yet there I was, in the theater, uncontrollably laughing.
At the end of the day, it will always be difficult to enjoy popular culture as a person of color. Many of its core producers are white and routinely have revealed themselves to be particularly insensitive when it comes to topics of race. To truly stand firm against racial insensitivity would mean cutting oneself off from just about every facet of mainstream entertainment, which would ultimately be neither possible nor enjoyable. Alternatively, we, as black people, are placed in an unfortunate position: In order to enjoy popular movies, TV, and music, we must eschew our personal feelings about the people behind the product.
For those who aren't black, it's the same cognitive dissonance that makes people uncomfortable with The Cosby Show in light of the ongoing Bill Cosby scandal. Are we still allowed to love Cliff Huxtable even though Bill Cosby is a serial rapist? Is there any possibility of comfortably consuming entertainment even though it was made at the hands of someone so utterly contemptuous?
I've asked myself that question more times than I can count. In the February 2015 issue of The Gentlewoman, Björk said, "Sound is the nigger of the world, man." She was discussing the subpar quality of museum speakers. Justin Bieber came under similar scrutiny when a four-year-old video surfaced of him unapologetically telling a joke with a disgustingly racist punchline. Even Tina Fey, who is frequently lumped in with the current wave of white feminists like Amy Schumer, wrote in her 2011 memoir Bossypants that it was OK for her father to warn her about black kids "coming from West Philly to steal bikes" because, after all, "this wasn't racism; it was experience."
It's easy to write these off as small, incidental slip-ups, to defend these people because they're just offhand comments and they didn't really mean to sound racist. But if we ignore these small microaggressions, then we ignore how they create a larger picture of anti-black racism and oppression that pervades modern society today. Sure, Tina Fey might not have intended to be racist, but the stereotype that black men are crooks has real consequences: I can't even begin to count the times that a white storeowner has followed me around a store. On an even deeper level with far worse consequences, this automatic (mis)categorization of blacks—specifically males—as being thugs and crooks has lead to a large number of innocent people being killed by the police, particularly in the past few years. The more that instances such as these are ignored and swept under the rug, the more the greater public internalizes the overarching ideas that they represent.
So what am I to do? In a culture so heavily saturated with these underlying prejudices, it's impossible to actively boycott the work of every problematic person unless you're willing to ostracize yourself completely from society. So, ultimately, I've made the decision to separate the art from the artist. I will not allow these examples of racial insensitivity from the producers of popular culture to taint my enjoyment of the product itself. I don't deserve the punishment that comes from excluding myself from something that others are free to absentmindedly enjoy.
I respect and admire people who boycott content because its producers have done or said unsavory things, but at the end of the day, it's futile—at least for me. Racism isn't going to disappear as a result, and all that really comes about in response to self-inflicted forfeiture is the fact that white people are free to carry on in ignorance, while the rest of us are left out-of-touch, unengaged, and unentertained.
I would be lying if I said that I didn't still watch those same cartoons years after finding out how racist they were—even if I do binge watch them on Netflix now rather than giving up my Sunday nights. But now, when I see Cleveland—Family Guy's "token black" character—dreamily describe his (stereotypically racist) post-church meal, I scoff instead of laugh.
Follow Michael Cuby on Twitter.