Thursday, July 29, 2010

If I could turn back time...

So you know that question, "If you could go back to any time period in history, which one would you choose and why?"

I've never liked that question.

Because if I'd be me (which I assume I would be,) I think my life would quite likely be way worse than it is now.

I guess this is a testament to how far we've come. But it's also pretty sad to think that for 99% of the time, my life might have been rather sucky.

Well, maybe that's an overstatement. I'm sure plenty of black people had plenty happy lives before the civil rights movement came along. But I do wonder how much slavery/segregation/jim crow affected people on a day to day basis. Not just black people, white people too. How often did you hear "the n word?" Daily, or was it not something said in polite company? When you went in the back entrance to get your food or whatever, were the white workers nice, mean or indifferent towards you?

I read this book called American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, and one of the things that I learned was that if a black person and a white person were stopped at a four way stop, the white person automatically had the right of way, even if that wasn't the order that they stopped in. I can't help but think that little things like that seeping into people's psyches 50 years ago still have an effect on race relations today.

After I read that book, I had my husband read it--and it f*cked his sh*t up. Y'all know I don't really like to curse on my blog, but I don't know of an appropriate substitute phrase that gets my point across. Anyway, it's a really great book to learn more about the history of our country after the Civil War, that goes beyond the segregated lunch counters we learned about in school. It was written by Jerrold M. Packard, and you can order it on Amazon (through my handy sidebar that says "read more books") or you can see if they have it at your local library.

But back to the original question. I think it might be interesting to go back to the 1950's, to see if it was as conformist as it is always portrayed to be in the movies. Plus, I like the women's fashions of that time. I'd also be interested in seeing what the 60's were like. How much did the hippie/anti-war movement permeate popular culture? Not too much before that really appeals to me. Maybe the Renaissance, because I heard there was lots of good art :P

What about you? What time period sounds appealing? How do your multiple identities (race, gender, etc.) influence your choices?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Follow-up Fridays

So we're bringing back our old friend Follow-up Fridays. That's where I comment on your comments. Because like I said in my last post I have more to say about the Swagger Wagon video and some of the comments/questions that were posed. Maybe I should change the subtitle of my blog from, Thoughts on race and inequality in America to Thoughts on the Swagger Wagon commercial . Ha ha, just kidding.

So my white friend JD asked me,

What do you think of the white dude in SNL who plays President Obama? Surely there's some makeup involved, but it doesn't seem as offensive as the second video.

I don't have a problem with that guy. His Obama impression has definitely improved; would everyone agree? I wonder if he really does the best Obama, or if they didn't pick another white guy from the cast because it would have required more makeup. Or how maybe having more than one black person on the cast might give them more options when it comes to parodying black celebrities. Not much of a resemblance between Kenan Thompson and Tiger Woods, am I wrong?

But one thing that stood out for me when I was watching that minstrel show video was just how unoffended I was by those two guys. Which to me showed that for me, it's not really about the black's about something else. Another thing that I noticed was how I didn't know any of the people that they mentioned when they were talking about the great minstrel shows of yore (exception: Al Jolson,) it's like that part of history has just been erased and we (people my age,) know almost nothing about it.

My Asian-American friend weezermonkey asked me:

Did you catch the MTV Movie Awards? How would you classify Aziz's character Taavon?

To answer your first question: Of course I watched the Mtv Movie Awards! I am a pop culture slor!

For those of you not in the know, Taavon was a character that host Aziz Ansari created. He was a "swagger coach" and did a little tape piece and also accepted an award as this character. If you want to watch him in action, you can click on the video below.

To answer your second question weezer, I thought this character was really funny. There were two major reasons why. First, Aziz Ansari is not white. Unfair, I know-- but him being not white I think gives him more leeway. It's like, since he has probably experienced racism in his own life, he is less likely to perpetuate it than someone who never has. I'm not saying this is an actual true statement, it's just what my brain thinks.

The second and more important reason that I thought Taavon was funny is because I am familiar with Mr. Ansari and his comedy. I know that he appears to have a true appreciation of hip-hop culture, and that he also addresses a lot of racial issues in his standup. I also know from watching his standup that he has a google alert on his name, so maybe this blog post will come up the next time he checks, and then he can see this message: I'm a big fan! Leave me a comment!

But having this information about Aziz is important because it helps put the clip into a context. And I think it also helps to further pinpoint what the problem for me was with the Swagger Wagon video. With Aziz, it's like look how well I can imitate a person from hip-hop culture, whereas with the couple in the minivan video the whole joke lies in how poorly they were able to do it. It's like "Look at how lame we are--isn't this funny?"

I can see the point that both Moufbreatha and john C made about the juxtaposition between the uncool minivan and the coolness of hip-hop culture. And I agree that it can be funny to try to make something unhip hip by associating with something edgy. But what unnerved me was this element of mockery that existed in the swagger wagon video. There was no attempt to say, "Actually we are cool even though we drive a minivan and we do have actual swagger--watch us demonstrate it." Like with Aziz. Or to use an example with actual white people, the Lazy Sunday video from SNL:

Those guys are working it. It comes from an understanding of what they are parodying, and they are able to rap about cupcakes and matinees with conviction; just like Kanye West is able to rap about working at the GAP.

To use another example: The Beastie Boys. I don't really know what they rap about because I think they kind of suck, but they have had long careers and everyone would agree that they treat rap/hip-hop with some level of respect.

I have always wondered why white people laugh if a comedian of color talks about how uncool they are. Chances are, if a white comedian makes fun of people of color, the people of color are not going to be yuk-ing it up. Has anyone else ever noticed that?

This is what I told my husband: I think the reason that white people laugh so freely about being dorky is because at the end of the day, in our society being cool isn't really that important. What is important? Having enough money to buy a minivan. Going to college. Being happily married and having tea parties with your kids. And many white people are very good at those things, so it is easy to have a chuckle at your own expense when someone talks about how you have an overbite when you dance, or are a little too friendly with your dogs.

Remember those articles that I linked to about the disparities in so many important, significant areas of life (education, criminal sentencing, infant mortality) between blacks and whites? No one made any mention of them. I wonder what that's about? Those disparities are not funny, they're real. And not much has changed with them since those Amos and Andy guys were painting their faces mocking black people. As my favorite Kenan Thompson SNL character would say:

OOoooh Weee! What's up with that? What's up with that? What's up? With that?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Who am I? Why am I here?

As most people who have a blog know, having a blog is a funny thing. It is really easy to become preoccupied (dare I say, obsessed?) with it.

how many people are reading this?
do I have any new comments yet?
do people think what I am saying is witty/insightful/entertaining/boring/stupid?
why am I even doing this, anyway?
what does it all mean?

et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I think I've gotten a lot better with most of this stuff. I don't check my traffic anymore, and I don't harass my friends nearly as much to leave me comments. But I do still struggle with what to say and how to say it. I've noticed recently that my pattern has been to think about writing a post for several days before I actually write it. There was a time when I was writing a post a day, and the words just flowed out of me each morning. But I think as the blog got more popular and I became more aware of the specific people I knew that were reading, that just sort of changed.

I think a lot of it has to do with the subject matter. It might be easier when your blog is about "today, I did x,y and z." Not, "What am I going to write about this time in an attempt to help solve the race problem?" I can't say for sure because I have never had a blog about x,y and z...maybe it is just as nerve-wracking. But I doubt it.

Another thing is that I sometimes find myself getting upset/irritated/frustrated at the comments that I get, and that makes me take a step back while I decide how I want to respond. I know that some people might think that saying comments are annoying is not the best way to go about getting more comments. But, we are all friends here and friends (good friends, anyway) are honest with each other. I don't tell you that I get annoyed so you'll stop leaving comments, I tell you so we can think about and talk about what it means.

I think for me, these emotions come from a basic feeling that what I am saying is not being heard; not being understood. Maybe you've already noticed, but all of my posts have tags. One of the tags is seek first to understand . That tag is for posts that are just musings about my life or my random thoughts and feelings. The whole quote that it comes from is Seek first to understand, then to be understood.This is my attempt to help you understand me better. Now I get the irony (is it irony? English teachers help me out,) in writing that quote and using it to say "Understand me!"

But I honestly feel like as a black person living in a predominantly white environment, I know way more about your culture, customs, vocabulary, history, mores, music, hair, food, dances, holidays, social movements, family dynamics, leisure activities, etc. than you know about mine.

I got emotional as I was writing that last paragraph, and we learn in grad school that whatever the person is talking about when they get emotional is really important .

So, as I think about it, I realize that I am getting emotional because as I write those words, I feel like someone is going to say,"No, you're wrong!" It's like I don't even have the space on my own freakin' blog to say, "As a black person, my voice is not heard as often as yours. You are allowed to take up more space than I do. Your story gets told, while mine is pushed to the sidelines." I feel like I need to justify or water down what I wrote, so people are not put off. Like, right now I feel compelled to say, "White people are not some homogeneous mass that all like and dislike the same things."

Does me typing that make you feel more comfortable?
Did you really think I thought that before I typed that I didn't?

This was originally going to be a short intro before I started a continuation of the swagger wagon posts. But I think it turned into something long enough to become a post of its own. Funny how that works. So...I'll end it here.

If you have a comment (no matter how potentially annoying or frustrating,) I would love to hear it.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Funny People.

So, I figured that I should answer the questions that I posed to you all in my last post. If you haven't read it yet, take a few minutes to do so now--otherwise the rest of this post isn't going to make any sense.

Let me start by saying that when I initially saw the first video posted by some friends on Facebook, I didn't even watch it. In fact, I probably groaned. I had a suspicion (that turned out to be correct,) that it was going to be yet another "dorky white people 'acting black' for a laugh" premise that we have all seen many, many times before.

This made me ask another question: Why do you think they didn't get a group of black actors to play the family in the swagger wagon video? How would a black man and woman, with black children singing the song, doing the various mannerisms have changed the impact of the commercial?

But then that brings us to the second video. What is the second video of? When I look at it I see the same thing: "Dorky white people 'acting black' for a laugh."

Granted, in the second video they have painted their faces black. And all of us (well, most of us) have been taught that white people painting their faces black is very, very bad.

But if we look at the content of what the guys in the second video are saying, I honestly don't see much of a difference. They tell some stupid (not overtly racist,) jokes, and then dance around like yahoos. Like the couple in the first video, they change the way that they talk when they are acting black vs. acting white.

I have been pondering this for awhile, and I think I am able to articulate what it is about the fact that the videos that are seen as being so different that irks me. We watch the second video and see that it is from 1950, see the guys with paint on their faces and can very easily have the response--BAD VIDEO.

But why? At least part of the reason is that we know in the 1950's racism was alive and well, codified into law and white people could still go to shows like this and laugh out loud and there would be no issue. This makes us mad/sad.

But fast forward to 2010. It's not like inequality due to race has gone away. Look at disparities in criminal sentencing, in educational/economic attainment in infant mortality --I could go on and on. What makes the climate so different now that the swagger waggon family is just funny and entertaining? Hell, just yesterday we were treated to the resolution of yet another "white cop shoots and kills unarmed black man" story. How much longer am I going to have to hear about stories like this?

So to answer my own questions like I said I would: I think these videos are the same. They're either both racish or they're both racist. One is not one and one the other. I am inclined to label them both racish, because they both make me want to take the people who conceived them and say, "Why do you think this is funny? What statement are you trying to make? What impact do you think disseminating this message has on our culture as a whole? Is what you are doing bringing the races together, or keeping them apart?"

Commenters on the last post: You posed some great questions. I shouldn't be surprised, because I think I have some of the most intelligent commenters in the entire blogosphere (: I have even more to say on this topic, maybe I will make a part three. But feel free to tell me about what I just wrote makes you want to say.

And if you read this blog regularly, but don't comment--take this as a potential sign from the universe that today is the day you are supposed to comment. If you have some thoughts, I want to hear them.