Apparently comedy isn’t as universal as you think it is
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For the sake of discussion and time, put this newspaper down and log on to YouTube right now. Search for “Shit Black Girls Say.” Are you laughing yet? If so, you may have just been, as Spike Lee might put it, bamboozled!
“Shit Black Girls Say” is a two-part comedy sketch produced by Billy Scorrells as a parody of Kyle Humphrey and Graydon Shepphard’s impossibly-popular “Shit Girls Say.”
Here, the comedian appears as “Peaches,” your stereotypical finger-snappin’, gum-clackin’, weave pattin’, broken English-speakin’, hatin’ on other sistas Black woman. At the time of my writing, Scorrells’ series had reached almost 7.5 million views on YouTube.
But is this the shit that Black people should be laughing at? In my investigation, I interviewed a graduate student in psychology at a Toronto university, who prefers to remain anonymous.
Burrows: Are the “Shit Black Girls Say” videos harmless fun, or something more harmful?
Graduate student: I think any form of media that encourages people to make snap associations between negative concepts and particular social groups has an invisible negative effect on society. We think we are just taking it as a joke, but if these associations are repeatedly reinforced they can become attitudes that influence real life outcomes.
Research on racial bias suggests that people hold both conscious or explicit attitudes as well as implicit or unconscious attitudes. People may say that they have no prejudice toward other races, but research has shown that these same people may have unconscious or implicit attitudes that associate racial out-groups with negative concepts. Some researchers believe that these negative associations are learned from repeated associations in the media between particular racial groups and negative concepts. Interestingly, research has shown that implicit bias is linked to racist behaviour toward out-groups, so it has real-life consequences.
It is important to note that these negative associations can also be directed toward the in-group. So this type of video can actually be creating negative associations that are then applied to the self or other members of one’s own racial group.
Burrows: How do these videos fit into what is going on with Black comedy as a whole?
Graduate student: There has
been a trend in movies to have Black men dressed up as Black women, creating an ugly caricature of the Black female. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case I would have to say that it is an insidious form of discrediting. Black women in these cases are depicted as angry, irrational, crass, raving
lunatics that inspire little more than fear and disgust. This might be less of an issue if we lived in a society wherein there were other frequent positive depictions of Black women, but there is little in the media to counteract this image.
The video seems to be a less blatant version of a similar trend. Most of the comments used in the video are things many women
(and many men) might say and have little to do with Black women in particular. They are probably not intended to cause offense to all Black women, but I find myself somewhat offended by them. Again, I think they create and reinforce negative in-group stereotypes and they perpetuate a feeling of distance or misunderstanding between Black men and women.
Burrows: Are the “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” videos any better? The videos are spinoffs, and in her two-part series, actress Franchesca Ramsey portrays your stereotypical blonde-haired, ditsy, white girl. So in highlighting stereotypes about Black women, does she present a stereotype about white women?
Graduate student: When I saw this, the issue of whether white people were being mocked never came up for me. I think many people could learn from this video that many of these comments which they think are totally innocent are in fact racist and reveal an underlying disrespect, while there are others that may appear racist on the surface but are actually relatively meaningless. This is a good thing.
The weakness of the video, in my opinion, is that it intersperses some comments that are rather innocuous (“Your hair feels like a Brillo pad”), with others that show a complete lack of understanding of the Black experience (“Why isn’t there a white entertainment television?” and “You can say the N-word but I can’t?”) and those that are blatantly racist (“He is so cute for a Black guy”and “It’s almost like you are not Black”).
It would be nice if these comments were somehow ranked in seriousness so that people could distinguish between comments made out of ignorance and comments that imply white superiority. This is an important distinction that people need to learn. The evidence of this is that some white people are afraid to even refer to a person’s race, and when trying to point out the Black guy, they say “the guy with the blue sweater.” They think that referring to a person’s race might be racist. This is because some people have no idea how or why some of these comments differ. For this reason, I think this video might have instructional potential.
Burrows: Overall, should the Black community even be concerned with comedy of this nature?
Graduate student: I think that comedy in general is taking a dangerous turn towards relying on stereotypes. I watch a lot of stand up comedy and I find I am frequently offended by the stereotyping of Blacks under the guise of humour. This is frequent among Black comedians and comedians of other races. Russell Peters comes to mind. He may make reference to stereotypes existing in many different racial groups however the impact of this type of stereotyping on the Black community is more serious.
For example, a stereotype about the fact that you don’t drive well and you are good at math, is a lot less consequential than a stereotype about how you don’t pay your bills or come to work on time. People should also be aware that even positive stereotypes can serve a negative purpose in society. Research has shown that positive stereotypes can represent a compensatory attitude that allows people to dismiss systemic inequality and support the status quo.
I think we should be vigilant about what we accept as a joke and how we allow ourselves to be depicted. We need to be vigilant also of how we joke and depict ourselves within our own community. The essential goal is respect. We should show respect for each other when we talk about ourselves and we should expect other groups to speak respectfully about us. We are not a joke. Our experience is not a joke.