Thursday, October 12, 2006

Conflicted Feelings

I did not want to dwell on this issue all day, but I saw something on TV that made my blood boil. It was a skit done in blackface.

I consider myself to be sufficienty enlightened enough not to give in to knee-jerk reactions to racial ignorance. After all, I am educated, and I tell myself that educated people can look upon these incidences and deconstruct them without allowing any emotions to take over.

Well, I've been lying to myself for far too long. I saw that skit, and it launched me on a two and a half hour crusade that has left me mentally drained and emotionally conflicted about my so-called rational approach to racism.

It was an episode of "Are You Being Served?", one of the Brit-coms that airs in the afternoon on the local public TV station. I was not actually watching the episode because I was on the computer, and it was on because I had been watching the previous program. Anyway, I overheard some foolishness (which is typical for this particular show) so I went into my bedroom, watched for about 2 minutes, and then returned to my work at the computer. A few minutes later, something else compelled me to go back into my bedroom to watch the end of the show. The ending was a musical number that was set up as a performance representing the ethnic heritage of one of the characters.

And then out came the smiling, dancing blackfaces. My jaw dropped in horror.

All of the main characters were made up in grease paint and wore black wigs except for one, a younger female cast member. I can only assume that for whatever reason, she chose not to go along with the make-up, but she still shuffled along with the rest of them. I could not believe it.

I immediately returned to the computer to gather research on the show and the episode so that I could send a strongly worded rebuke to the station. My angle was that I was offended not only by the content of the episode, but also because it aired without any warning. I suggested that in the future, the station should insert a commentary or disclaimer to explain the context.

I have gone through a kaleidescope of emotions since I sent that email this afternoon. This whole incident has me reeling, but I also have had to confront my beliefs about responding to racial insensitivity and ignorance. It has caused me to question my reactions when blacks also use racist imagery as an entertainment tool. What right do I have to get offended enough to fire off an email to PBS when I simply change the channel when I see something just as bad on BET, MTV or Vh1? Am I a hypocrite?

Do I feel more within my rights to hold PBS accountable because it is a public television station, and as such is owned by the viewers? Am I invoking white guilt because I know they will respond to an allegation of racial insensitivity raised by an African American viewer? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill...after all, the program at issue is a 25 year old British import?

The thing is, I should be just as indignant with my own people for similar offenses. After all, if I can't expose the shortcomings of artistic expression within my own community, then what right do I have indicting the shortcomings of others?

I have waged my own internal war against so-called negative images in the popular culture since college when I made the choice not to purchase or participate in any art form that denigrated black women. I have struggled to remain consistent all these years, and when I have tried to recruit others to my way of thinking, I have been accused of being self-righteous. Few of my peers agree that this stuff is garbage and that it caters to the lowest common denominator of commercialism.

I am going on and on, and realizing that this struggle for responsible images will persist for as long as I live, I just wish that I could convince more people that this is not so much about negative images as it is about negative intentions. The real distinction between art that uplifts and art that denigrates is the intention of the artist. I am not convinced that those old racist cartoons and blackface movies were attempts by whites to pay homage to black culture. If they were, then why was it necessary to include certain overt racial cues such as watermelons and fried chicken? And those who suggest that the modern imagery is merely sophisticated satire obviously ignore the fact that many of these actors are paid good money to make fools of themselves. Again, the real proof lies in the intention. Just ask Dave Chappelle about that thin line between a biting satire and a mocking insult, and he'll explain why he walked away from $50 million.

I don't know what to expect from PBS in response to my email. I probably will not be able to enjoy another episode of "Are You Being Served" without a knot in my throat, because I cannot believe that blackface was an acceptable joke in 1981 Great Britian. That was barely twenty years after black folks on this side of the pond supposedly overcame, and less than three years after the ground-breaking mini-series "Roots" aired (which was the name of the offending episode). Clearly, the intention was ridicule, and I'm sorry but racism isn't funny when expressed in southern twang, in inner-city Ebonics or Spanglish, nor when it is dressed up in an English accent.

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