Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The new face of blackface

Craig Brimm from kiss my black ads posted some ads from Chicago Lake Liquors in which it displays white people "acting black" (please note, I hate this phrase, since I believe it has no merit, but this sort of ignorance is what seems to be invoked in these ads--especially since they've chosen the whitest of white people for the them).

There's a clear class distinction going on here, too. Notice that these white guys are are at least upper middle class (in how they dress and speak--in the one at the office, they're at least moderately successful). Notice, too, how awkward and clunky their speech is, going from "proper" (white) speech to what we understand to be "black slang."* It's awkward because it doesn't come naturally to them; they're imitating something deemed cool.

As soon as I saw the video I immediately made the connection between this and blackface--the only difference here is there's no obvious racist make-up. I also showed it to a white friend, who thought it was hilarious. When I told him that some people might read it as racist, his response was "Well, who made it? Were they white or black?" When I asked why that would matter he said, "If it was black people, then it's okay." This logic escapes me, and I'm not sure if I'm capable of pointing out why it's still not okay.

I recommend that you go to Craig Brimm's page for an appropriate video response to these ads.
Note: this is an insulting (and unfortunately common) label. According to the Linguistic Society of America:

The variety known as "Ebonics," "African American Vernacular English" (AAVE), and "Vernacular Black English" and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties. In fact, all human linguistic systems -- spoken, signed, and written -- are fundamentally regular. The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as "slang," "mutant," "lazy," "defective," "ungrammatical," or "broken English" are incorrect and demeaning.


CaitieCat said...

Hiya, F_G - Shaker Caitiecat here. The way linguists describe the speech of black Americans is usually "Black English Variant", which has also been called "ebonics". And I know you didn't mean any slur by calling it slang, but I wanted to clarify for anyone reading that it is, in fact, a fully-formed dialect of English, as rich in grammatical and vocabularial complexity as any other English dialect.

And this is not okay. Good analysis.

FilthyGrandeur said...

thank you for pointing this out fellow Shaker. i put "black slang" in quotation marks for irony i suppose, as this is what white people refer to it as. it certainly is a fully formed language all its own--slang isn't nearly as complex in grammar, vocabulary, and syntax as ebonics is. i will update my post. thank you.

macon d said...

Wow. Just, wow. Thanks for posting these ads, and I agree, Craig Brimm's post is an excellent response.

Anonymous said...

"Well, who made it? Were they white or black?" When I asked why that would matter he said, "If it was black people, then it's okay." This logic escapes me, and I'm not sure if I'm capable of pointing out why it's still not okay.

I think his logic is as follows: "If it was made by white folks, then it's taking the piss out of black folks; but if it's made by black folks, then it's taking the piss out of white folks. Since it's okay to take the piss out of white folks, then it is okay if it was made by black folks but not if made by white folks."

The reason it's still not okay is because the racist effect is found at the audience level, not at the production level: if folks watch and perceive the ads with racist undertones then it is still problematic.

Incidentally, I am very much interested in the proper recognition of various English dialects, AAVE included (although most of my interest is based in England, and our own regional variants), as being "correct" or "acceptable" English, so it's good to see the acknowledgement here (I note that it's via Cait's comment, but still it's good to see).

Jha said...

I read somewhere else, "intent doesn't matter". The effect of a work should matter more. The people making this could well have seriously thought it was funny and not intended any form of racism, but there are people who still find it racist and thus, problematic. At which point, it's really just good sense to avoid it altogether.

Of course this is really difficult to explain THIS to folks, because they all get up in arms about having to watch themselves, and "why can't people just take a joke". =/

Anonymous said...

I think that I saw "speaking AAVE in a General American accent", or its equivalent, at Stuff White People Like, though I can't find it now. Maybe I'm confusing it with "listening to black music that black people don't listen to any more".