What is Race, Anyway?

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Before I begin, let me announce in advance: even as a progressive, Race and the Law teaching, feminist black woman, I DO have a sense of humor about race, gender and other matters of identity.   Really.   I’ve even been known to laugh at things that some people find distinctly unfunny.   Take for example the”mockumentary”film Borat that I recently watched again for the nth time. I find it hilarious. In Borat, comedian Sasha Baron Cohen reprises one of his roles from Da Ali G Show, one wherein he depicts an uncouth, brazen, bigoted foreigner out to make a documentary in America and along the way decides to meet and marry actress Pamela Anderson from the television show Baywatch. In his travels he encounters real, non-actor Americans. Unbeknownst to them, Cohen uses his fictional persona to make many of the people he encounters objects of derision. Some viewers found Borat, like the Da Ali G Show itself, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist, especially in the way it portrayed black women. The black woman character in Borat was a scantily dressed, middle-aged, overweight prostitute that the main character takes as his escort to a Southern white dinner party. (As part of the delicious irony, the character is actress and comedienne Luenell Campbell, one of the few”non-real”people in the film). At the end of the film, the Borat character marries the black prostitute character and takes her home to his  “native”Kazakhstan, where she is greeted with reverence by villagers. Borat was funny because of the way that these images and situations were used to make fun of Western mainstream society’s ignorance, fear and hatred of the Other.

I suppose I could say that The Root’sThe Blackest White Folks We Know“falls somewhere within this genre of over-the-top, offensive humor that makes a point about social bias. I could say that. But I think I’d be wrong in saying so.   The problem with”The Blackest White Folks We Know”article and the accompanying slide show is that, while tongue in cheek, it offers what may be interpreted as serious commentary about the black bona fides of the white people it features (let’s call it their blackafides).   Reading across the comments (e.g. Phil Jackson’s”moves,”Justin Timberlake’s”curly ‘fro,”Nicole Austin’s portrayal of a  â€œbootylicious video vixen,”Kim Kardashian’s”Booty Pop physique,”and Bill Maher’s”obsession with black women”–notice how many of these comments are about black women’s bodies or white women with”black”body styles? I sense a pattern emerging…) the underlying message is that black is the new black:that is, black history, culture and folkways can be succinctly summed up, packaged and sported as a hairstyle, a singing style, a body style (thanks to surgery, injections, and padding, bodies can be styled) or a black companion on your arm. Black becomes a fashion accessory that anyone can don.”The Blackest White Folks We Know“is a mash-up of cultural appropriation, objectification and festishization.  Such displays are part of why, despite the continuing scourge of racism, it has become harder to talk about race and racism and harder to teach about it.   What is race, anyway?

-Lolita Buckner Inniss

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