SNL misses mark with “Twelve Days Not a Slave”
We live in a world in which people are extremely impressionable, one in which we receive a majority of our daily information from television. Heuristics, especially for political issues, are garnered primarily from television shows. Local news outlets, Nightline, CNN, Fox News, and even programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” gather large amounts of information, distill, and package them for easy consumption. Television’s having this much control over the way we think is troubling.
I began thinking about how television impacts our thoughts on race when watching last week’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Admittedly, I was mainly watching for musical guest Janelle Monáe. But my attention was violently grabbed when a sketch called “Twelve Days Not A Slave” aired. A parody of the film “Twelve Years A Slave,” the sketch, starring cast member Jay Pharoah, was about a slave interacting with white people in a southern bar on his 12th day of emancipation.
Pharoah’s character is wide-eyed and socially unaware, unsuccessfully soliciting “high fives” from white patrons, asking host Edward Norton’s character (who would not have entertained his presence in the bar in the first place, as the United States was still segregated on Jan. 13, 1863) if he should approach a group of white women sitting at a table across the bar. He generally behaves in a way I found insulting even when in the state of suspended disbelief that SNL sketches sometimes demand.
Jokes about race are fine. My late grandmother always preached the “laugh to keep from crying” philosophy, and in many circumstances, I try to adopt a similar attitude. But this is a very different SNL from the group in that produced the iconic “Racist Word Association Interview” sketch between Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor in 1975, in which Chase ultimately calls Pryor a nigger. Ironically, I found it to be much funnier, and more tasteful.
Chase’s interaction with Pryor shed light on the very real problem of racial profiling in the workplace and the inability for black people to be gainfully employed in predominantly white spaces. It showcased themes of racially motivated microaggressions and the general distance between the white and black communities.
Conversely, last week’s sketch was borderline minstrelsy. There was no blackface, and no epithets were used, but Pharoah was the butt of his own joke, and the object of laughter was the idea of a free black man caught unaware. What slave with the will to live would, after being free for less than two weeks, walk into a bar and make sexual advances toward a white woman? There are many places where it’s extremely dangerous to do that in 2013, let alone in 1863. What was taken away was: “Look how strangely he’s behaving—completely unaware of his social status and oblivious to his own marginalization and colonization.” Hilarious. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder what Janelle Monae, someone who makes music saturated with themes of race and gender, thought about that sketch.
Ultimately, it’s just a comedy routine. But considering that we are much more impressionable than we would like to believe, it’s shuddering to think how racially privileged people absorb those themes, and perhaps worse, how those who are mocked internalize them.
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