It’s Wednesday and Chesca Leigh’s funny Sh!t White Girls Say to Black Girls is continuing to prove itself a viral hit with over 5 million views. Her smart twist on the Sh!t People Say meme plays on well-worn cultural stereotypes. It gives us permission to label, laugh at and even challenge social norms. The target of the parody laughs in uneasy recognition at her membership in a given group and those outside of that group can say, ‘yup, we’ve noticed that’ without sounding prejudiced. So why does it matter?
With politicians hitting the campaign trail, race-baiting rhetoric is in full swing. Just look at Rick Santorum’s recent welfare gaffe and unbelievably weak explanation for it. I mean ‘blah’ people. Really? Spin doctors earn gazillions to come up with ‘blah’?
The blonde wig in Leigh’s video works like reverse black face. It acknowledges the fraught history of hair, race and beauty and makes us laugh and/or cringe in recognition. Parody works because it contains a hard kernel of truth. It holds up a skewed mirror that reflects our complicated relationships in a way that avoids the slick predictability of American melodramas. ( I’m looking at you Monster’s Ball, Crash, The Blind Side.) Richard Pryor held up this same skewed mirror decades ago and so did Whoopi Goldberg as Little Girl – a character who wraps a towel around her head longing to be white, blond and beautiful.
Now imagine a cultural studies class where the professor curses like a drunk sailor and the stadium-sized classroom includes a healthy mix of liberal admirers, far right wackos, and the culturally clueless. Tumblr site “Yo, is this racist?” uses scathing humor to bring anonymous racial discourse to its logical extreme. Ever notice how a seemingly innocuous news story can devolve into a race war in the comments section? The anonymity of the internet brings out closeted bigots in droves. With a simple premise, YITR invites readers to submit questions about whether something is racist. The questions are alternately sad, hilarious, and heartbreaking. YITR works because it’s brutally honest, brutally funny and, in the end, strangely sincere.