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Is drink-throwing and weave-snatching the new “shucking & jiving?”

For Discussion: Is Reality TV A New-Age Minstrel Show?

We’ve told you before how great the racial satire film Dear White People is and urged you to check it out in theaters. Hopefully you’ve had a chance. Now the film’s director, Justin Simien has written a companion book for the movie, also aptly named “Dear White People,” and much like the movie, it’s full of provocative and hilarious essays and clever charts and graphs all sprinkled with a healthy dose of truth. Below, check out a chapter-exerpt from the book that takes on Reality TV and its relationship to blackface minstrel shows of the past. Via Vulture:

Once upon a time, white America’s primary introduction to black people came in the form of the Minstrel Show. Stock characters, often played by white people, such as the Mammy, Zip Coon, and, of course, Jim Crow popularized through entertainment the idea that black people were lazy, ignorant, overly emotional, unsophisticated, and intellectually bereft. These ideas about black people are still being popularized today in entertainment thanks to white television executives (and, to be fair, some black ones too). Though the catchphrases have gone from “Who dat?” to “Who gon’ check me, boo?,” reality TV has kept the stereotypes tap-dancing along and made them more popular than ever!

What’s particularly disturbing about this, implications of our collapsing educational system notwithstanding, is that stereotypes from the slack-jawed, no-good black male to the sexually promiscuous, foul-mouthed black woman are so ubiquitous, groups of people in the country assume that this is how all black people really behave. Now the confused, shuffling Mammies and flamboyant, vapid Zip Coons of yesteryear are actually real people, competing for Donald Trump’s affection and/or that of each other’s man. I use the term “real people” loosely. The truth is that people in reality shows are cast, crafted, and coached by a staff of executives and writers to attract the biggest audience possible. They are filmed and then re-filmed, with bits of dialogue added to attain maximum absurdity. They are then edited and beamed to millions, validating the worst stereotypes of black folks for people whose contact with actual black people is limited. And boy, are they fun!

The worst part about this whole thing? I watch it. And so do my black friends! The Real Housewives of Atlanta! I was in the front row for Kandi’s wedding! I watched every spin-off they made for Flavor of Love’s “New York,” Tiffany Pollard. I Love New York? Me too! New York Goes to Work — sign me up for overtime! I am part of the problem. This chapter is my penance! Of course I feel bad about it, but deep down I know it’s all fake. Like professional wrestling. There are a lot of people out there, though, who don’t know it’s not real. Somehow bad improv and staged fighting shot with minimal production value got called “reality” before becoming an American phenomenon.

Of course, Jersey Italians, Shahs from Sunset, and back-alley hillbillies have it bad in reality media as well, but they’re only a slice of the images we see of not-so-dark people…

One of the fun things, I assume, about being white is that there are so many varying examples of behavior attributed to white people in the media. It must be a bit easier to walk through life without dodging as many presumptions. Sure, there are white people who appear in their share of trashy television, but that accounts for just a percentage of the overall, mostly positive, images of white folks in the media. For black folks the variety of images adds up to a pretty short stack. Partly because television executives are checking Facebook super busy and are afraid of losing their jobs under a lot of pressure. While there may be a desire to expand the representation of the African diaspora, deep in the heart of this hypothetical TV exec, it’s a lot easier just to go with another show about a semi-famous rapper who has a bevy of loud and crazy girlfriends. Or a house filled with alcoholics, the alcohol that’s slowly killing them, and a couple of black women who are either “not there to make friends” or who will “cut a bitch.”

Hmmm….what do you think? Are we okay with the blatant stereotypes and negative perception of Black life perpetuated in reality TV simply because it’s not a bunch of white actors in blackface? Or is entertainment just entertainment and we shouldn’t worry too much about the “handful of people” who believe everything they see on television?


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