Musings on Minstrelsy: “Ironic” Racism in America

Musings on Minstrelsy: “Ironic” Racism in America

by Lula Belle

July 24, 2012
This past spring, something happened where I live, something perhaps unexpected in my adopted hometown of liberal-minded Charlottesville, Virginia.
Billed as a “Poetry Review of R. Kelly,” it featured about 12 white men and women, standing on stage and reciting some of the rapper’s lyrics in a deadpan “white person” voice. The performance had some potential — a light jab on the “Poetry Voice” and academia’s appropriation of hip-hop — and could have easily taken the route of a Saturday Night Live skit poking fun at racial stereotypes, if interspersed with a complementary reading along the lines of people of color with bad teeth reading lyrics from Hank Williams, Jr. Instead, the evening constituted an “ironic” commentary — a critique of African-American culture.
Some of the actors were in hip-hop attire (that is, stuff they thought black people might wear) and some had their hair in cornrows; one skit involved hair braiding. In short, it was a minstrel show. Nobody wore blackface paint that night, but it was white people performing to a white audience while spoofing a black artist and his culture. The whole thing made me feel dirty, and that by attending I’d just participated in something very wrong.
I was one of only a few people of color in the audience, but few people would have known that about me. That’s because if Facebook ever came up with a profile question asking about race, my answer would be: It’s complicated. I’ve been the same color my entire life, but the boxes I’ve checked to define my race have changed frequently, and the only one that really works to describe me on any of those forms is “other.” My father is from Afghanistan and my mother is Caucasian (Irish, French, Swedish).
Once, when I was applying to college, I checked the box for Asian (Afghanistan is on that continent), but in America, “Asia” means East or Southeastern Asia, thus decreasing my chances of getting in by placing me in the most academically competitive minority group. Thanks, University of Virginia, for letting me in anyway.
In America being half-Afghan, half-Caucasian is actually classified as Caucasian, yet my looks are “exotic” enough to raise questions for some (mostly well-intentioned) people. Growing up in Minnesota, I identified as Caucasian but in reality, I have always been non-white, other, brown, different.
President Barack Obama knows what I’m talking about. Half-Caucasian like me, he is still brown enough to be disrespected by some — Fox commentators, the finger-pointing Arizona governor Jan Brewer, “birthers” claiming Obama wasn’t born in America. Of course, none of those people would ever be quoted as saying they don’t respect him because he is African American. But it still amounts to overwhelming disrespect for a president.
I link this epidemic of disrespect to the existence of the “one drop” rule, an antiquated law from the early 1900s stating a person need only possess “one drop” of African blood to be considered black.
What it would be like for Obama (and for me) if the legacy of “one drop” didn’t exist? Instead, as noted by Stephen Therstrom in the National Review, the principle gained force for some after 2008: “The United States is the only country in the world in which a white mother can have a black child but a black mother cannot have a white child.”
Many make decisions along the lines of author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who wrote in the New York Times: “Interracial couples share a moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children.”
Like Obama, I, too, was mostly abandoned by my father and raised by my white, single mother and my white grandparents. If I were elected president some day and people identified me as America’s first Afghan-American president, it wouldn’t necessarily feel right to me, though I understand such a distinction would be a useful reminder that our nation of many colors should be represented as such by its elected individuals. Further, I need to bear witness to racism when I see it, even in its most “ironic” forms.
While the 2008 election was, and still is, huge for people of color in America — especially for people of African descent — the election of President Obama is a tiny band-aid on the gaping wound of America’s racial legacy.
It’s certainly way too early for wanna-be hipsters to indulge in “ironic racism,” which seems suddenly in vogue — whether it be Virginia minstrelsy, recently-headlined messages on Twitter from from HBO writer Lesley Arfiin referring to President Obama as a piece of poop, or disbelieving tweets about the black character in The Hunger Games.
How is it that white people so quickly felt they could lift the lid off a Pandora’s box filled with racist tidbits, tics and quips for all of us to see? Did I miss something? At the outset of Obama’s presidency, was there some collective thought among some white liberals that “A black president— yay! Can we feel less guilty now about white privilege and let loose that load of ironic racism we’ve been keeping pent up all this time?”
It’s a teaching moment of sorts, turning me to resources like Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Black Face Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. The scary, yet illuminating, part of “ironic racism” is that its perpetrators are seemingly unaware of their role in it, just as comedians (like Daniel Tosh) can somehow not realize that they’ve reinforced rape culture and misogyny.
Right before that Charlottesville show, I ran into a friend, also a person of color. Like me, she knew some of the actors, but I couldn’t talk her into coming with me to watch the show. Afterward, I understood why.


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